Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said there are two kinds of scenes in screenplays: “the Pet the Dog scene and the Kick the Dog scene.” The canine love-letter “A Dog’s Purpose” manages to work in both. You might be surprised that this sappy, family-friendly tribute to man’s best friend kills its main character within mere moments. A stray puppy is snapped up by an evil, net-wielding dog catcher, and soon he’s off to that nice farm in the sky, before his rebirth. This serves as the starting point for the circle of life and metaphysical journey of our puppy protagonist.
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, the prevailing notion may be that all dogs indeed go to heaven. But “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, takes a different approach, suggesting that dogs are constantly reincarnated. We follow the lives of a pup voiced by Josh Gad: first, briefly, the stray puppy; then a red retriever named Bailey in the 1960s and ’70s; Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 police dog; Tino, a chubby ’80s corgi; and finally Buddy, a neglected St. Bernard with a long road home.
For all his shapes, forms and lives, it’s always Bailey inside there, retaining all the memories and experiences along the way. Bailey’s a rather existential dog, constantly questioning the meaning of life and the reason he is where he is. Is it to have fun? To make humans happy? That seems to be the case, but Bailey just can’t stop questioning. Oddly enough, he settles on “be here now.” Who knew yogi and spiritual teacher Ram Dass had four-legged followers?
The section dedicated to Bailey and his boy Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, then K.J. Apa), takes place in a “Pleasantville”-inspired simulacrum of mid-century Americana. It feels odd, cramming in dramatics of first loves, alcoholic fathers and tragic events, all of which isn’t supported by the omnibus format of the film, which requires a kind of shallow, pat storytelling that’s all about short, endearing dog anecdotes.
The real problem here, though, is that it’s painfully cheesy sustenance, relying on hokey burger joint and Friday night football game stereotypes to take the place of character development. It falls back on the kind of hackneyed cliches endemic to rose-colored, nostalgia-heavy images of the kind of “America” people cite when they argue that this country needs to be great, again.
The other sections are cute, warm tales of animal heroism or dedication, the kind of thing you encounter in Reader’s Digest or on a very special episode of “Oprah.” The novelty of the film comes from its “dog’s perspective,” as Gad breathlessly inhabits the attention-addled, food-obsessed, emotionally intelligent psyche of this canine character. There are digs at cats, cutesy misunderstandings about what donkeys are called, and speculation about why humans press their mouths together.
There is a late-breaking scandal harshing the buzz around this feel-good animal flick, involving a troubling TMZ video of a reluctant dog, an aggressive trainer and a dangerous water stunt. This does threaten the possible success of the film, but the fact remains that with or without a scandal, what was there in the first place has all the emotional resonance of a dog-themed novelty coffee-table book: Adorable, but ultimately forgettable.
Cast: Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, John Ortiz, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Josh Gad (voice only).
Director: Lasse Hallström.
Screenwriters: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 120 minutes. Animal peril. Playing at area theaters.