Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: "A Dog's Purpose"

“A Dog’s Purpose” is an unrepentant tearjerker, as movies about dogs often are.

There’s just an indescribable purity about a dog. Treat it well, and it will return that to you in the form of boundless love. A dog will wait hours in your office while you do stuff they consider dreadfully boring (like writing a movie review), hoping for a chance at five minutes of playtime.

They may not be great for the pocketbook -- how much for flea medicine again?? -- but when it comes to spiritual replenishment, the ROI on dogs cannot be beaten.

Director Lasse Hallström, who made the seminal “My Life As a Dog” 30-odd years ago, gives us a fanciful tale of a super canine, a red retriever named Bailey who lives out several lives during the course of the movie, always being resurrected as a puppy with a new chance at finding its reason for existing.

Josh Gad, with that incredibly flexible voice of his, narrates Bailey as he morphs into Ellie, a German Shepherd police dog, a Corgi named Tito with a tremendous appetite, and a big hound named Buddy. He retains his memories as Bailey, and strives to do good by the humans in his life, despite some of them not being very caring owners.

The strongest relationship is with Ethan, a boy growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. He’s played by Bryce Gheisar as a kid and K.J. Apa as a teen. They’re inseparable buds, even when Ethan becomes the star quarterback on the high school football team and starts dating Hannah (Britt Robertson), who’s clearly The One.

But dark stuff in Ethan’s family and circumstances push things in a darker direction, with Bailey trying to make sense of it all from his perspective underneath the kitchen table. In his simplistic paradigm where sniffing, eating, playing and licking are the sum total secrets to happiness, humans are a tremendous conundrum.

Let’s talk about controversy. Or rather, nontroversy. There’s a video floating around of one of the dog actors for the film being pushed into water by its trainer during production. It got scared but was not hurt or ever in any danger. Some activist types are pushing a boycott of the movie as a result. Please. People who call that animal abuse have obviously never seen real animal abuse. I did worse than that to my pooch last weekend when she stole a piece of pizza.

It does appear to have had an effect, which it is my duty to report. For starters, the movie is a lot shorter than the 120-minute running time that’s been published. It appears something like 20 minutes have been hastily cut out. The credits also list a bunch more people as screenwriters besides Cathryn Michon, who adapted the novel by W. Bruce Cameron. And the Hollywood premier was scrapped.

OK? Got all that? Let’s get back to reviewing the movie.

This is not an especially clever or sophisticated film. Dogs do things to make us happy, dogs do things to make us sad. Life (or rather, lives) unfold with the requisite mix of joy, betrayal, tragedy and pathos.

I’m not giving anything away in saying that the story eventually returns to Ethan and Hannah, a half-century later, now played by Dennis Quaid and Peggy Lipton. We know what’s going to happen, the dog knows what’s going to happen, and it’s just a matter of waiting until the people catch up.

But doggarnit, if you don’t shed a few tears and crack a few smiles during “A Dog’s Purpose,” then there’s no hope for you.

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