A monthlong series in which Mr. Ringenberg looks at canine cinema, charitably or otherwise.
In these tumultuous times, when our nation is so harshly divided, there remains one sentiment that almost everyone can come together and agree upon: It’s super lame to needlessly kill a dog in your movie. The horror genre is typically the worst offender in these cases, casually knocking off some poor mutt as a way to tell the audience, “Oh yeah, we are not messin’ around, pal. Watch out: this was made by a couple of real sickos!” Except the dog-killing trope hasn’t been able to muster any shock value since Steven Spielberg used it back in 1975 with Jaws. If a film’s knife-wielding maniac offs a whiny little kid? That’s obviously pretty rad. But lay a hand on Milo? Cancelled.
While horror seems to be slowly learning its lesson — more cinematic pooches seem to be emerging unscathed these days — the movie we’re examining today is guilty of crimes whose sadistic nature makes even the grisliest slasher flicks look soft by comparison. Its moronic plot serves no function except to submit its unlucky viewers (or victims, more appropriately) to a parade of painfully drawn-out doggie deaths. Worse, it does so under the guise of a family film. If that doesn’t ring any bells, then I envy you, as it means you’ve never had to endure 2017’s A Dog’s Purpose — a crass piece of emotional torture-porn with a script that appears to have been developed by a writer’s room of 8-year-olds.
Purpose packs what is surely among the dumbest high-concept premises ever conceived: a dog that ponders the meaning of his existence as he is reincarnated through several lifetimes. With each rebirth comes both a new body and owner, and, of course, the promise of yet another death. In the opening minutes, our titular dog is a lonely stray wandering the streets. A voiceover (delivered by Josh Gad) conveys the animal’s thoughts in the movie’s first spoken lines: “What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? Is there a point to any of this?” That batshit-literal monologue was a real decision made by real screenwriters wondering how to announce the central theme of their movie, and you can bet that when those existential queries are finally addressed, the answer is just as unimaginative. Unfortunately, this dog’s life ends rather pointlessly after he’s promptly snatched by animal control and put to sleep at the pound. Add A Dog’s Purpose to the growing list of family classics that open with an adorable pup getting euthanized.
Reincarnated as a Golden Retriever, he’s found by a pair of garbagemen (who coincidentally also have garbage souls) that naturally treat him like shit and lock him inside their car so they can go crush a few cold ones with the boys. Moments before this innocent, perfect fucking puppy suffocates to death all alone in this grimy old truck, he’s rescued by a kid named Ethan and his mom, who eventually name him Bailey.
We then see the first of many, many, many sequences of Bailey and his new owner prancing around and playing fetch in some generic suburban lawn. These scenes are clearly intended to illustrate the immeasurable love that develops between a pet and their owner. However, they’re shot in a bright, overly sanitized style that renders the footage indistinguishable from a Cialis TV ad. All this saccharine nonsense does have its purpose, though — to get everyone nice and buttered up before Bailey kicks the bucket.
Bailey goes by several other names throughout, but really, I can’t bother. Each of those “lives” to which we are privy follows an identical routine: dog forms deep bond with new person, something terribly tragic happens, overlong scene shot from the dog’s perspective in his final moments — complete with an owner sobbing and cradling him and Josh Gad’s cloying voiceover giving us every one of his final thoughts.
What possible reason is there for such a bizarre story structure? The film posits that Bailey’s reincarnation cycle gives him the time to draw conclusions about life and existence by experiencing a vast swath of cultures and situations that we humans could never amass in our finite time on Earth. The problem with this theory is that Bailey lives the same fucking life every time. Even the segment where he’s born a police dog adheres to the same formula as the rest, albeit with one noteworthy difference: Instead of dying from injection, old age or a broken heart, he gets shot by a criminal and bleeds out on the street!
Thus, the only explanation for this inane plot is that the filmmakers behind A Dog’s Purpose planned to squeeze every tear out of moviegoers by having not one, but four climactic deathbed scenes for our beloved dog character. Melodramatic dog deaths are nothing new; the title Old Yeller alone conjures up that very image. But the degree of manipulation in this instance is a special brand of shamelessness. The lack of shame stings harder partly due to the laziness of the screenplay, while the rest falls on Gad’s insufferable narration.
There’s no way to overstate how grating Gad’s voiceover performance is here. He imbues each line with an earnestness so over-the-top it sounds mocking and insincere. Gad’s voice as Bailey is like someone talking directly to a toddler, simultaneously condescending and corny as hell. It goes without saying that as overwrought as the death sequences are to begin with, they’re doubly so thanks to Gad. You can almost hear him pouting while delivering lines like “Wh – why am I so tired?” and “I don’t feel like playing anymore” to make the dog’s final moments as pathetic as possible.
Thankfully, Bailey does share a handful of mind-blowing revelations on the meaning of life — namely sage advice along the lines of “having fun” and “helping others.” Holy shit, right? Perhaps the void of artistic integrity at the core of A Dog’s Purpose could be overlooked if it was aimed squarely at children, but its marketing and massive box-office take make it woefully apparent that there are adults out there who think this is a good movie. Ultimately, that’s all the proof one needs to realize that life, in fact, has no purpose.