"What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason?"
That is the first line of A Dog's Purpose, the Lasse Hallström-directed adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron's 2010 bestseller. Which is to say, we're not dealing with much in the way of subtlety here.
The film centers on one Dog, living out multiple lives as a number of dogs, while searching for his meaning. It's more than a bit hokey and absolutely dripping in sap, but in ways that will surely make dog lovers awww, despite themselves. Dogs don't always understand, but they always try their best and they're good boys. You are reading this review to gauge whether you should see the movie or not, though, I suspect. Well, you must ask yourself a few questions first:
1. Can you see past the controversy? PETA has called for a boycott of A Dog's Purpose after video leaked that alleged to show a trainer attempting to force a German shepherd, named Hercules, into churning waters. The movie's star, Dennis Quaid, and producer have both refuted these accusations -- "I certainly would not be out here supporting the film if any abuse had occurred," Quaid told ET -- and the film's credits boast the American Humane Association's "No Animals Were Harmed" seal of approval. This is an answer I can't give you.
I will say this: the production notes call the dogs "the true leads" of the film, yet their names are noticeably absent from the credits. If we are crediting "Hot Dog Vendor," shouldn't SAG-AFTRA acknowledge Trip the retriever, Mailo the corgi, Bolt the St. Bernard and Shadow the German shepherd? (Also: are Shadow and Hercules the same dog? Who is Hercules? A stunt shepherd? If so, credit him as such, too.)
2. Did Marley & Me make you cry? And if so, how hard? Because the first scene -- literally, the first scene -- is a puppy being euthanized*. (*Murdered?) The premise dictates that you are going to see dogs die, and boy, do they ever die! One of natural causes, one put to sleep, one shot in the heart and, as she bleeds out, her owner cradles her body and tells her what "a good dog...a good dog" she is. I never numbed to it, going from sad to devastated to body-heaving sobs as yet another dog was snuffed out, and I turned to the person next to me and cried out, "Why are we doing this to ourselves?!??"
(There are also some dark domestic issues and lots of talk of potential nuclear annihilation, which I'm not sure the PG crowd the film is targeting will understand? In addition to all the dead dogs?) (So many dead dogs.)
3. Are you confident in your relationship with your own dog? A Dog's Purpose proposes that your dog's consciousness may have already lived a number of lives before you, and will certainly live a number after you. Here, Bailey the retriever falls in love with his boy, Ethan, in the '60s, then is reborn as a police dog in the '70s and a corgi in the '80s before reuniting in the present day with a grown Ethan. (All of the dogs are voiced by Olaf from Frozen himself, Josh Gad, so charming and affable and dopey and, well, dog-ish.)
Quite frankly, it made me paranoid that my dogs might not be living their best life with me. Or at least, not their favorite. What if they are pining for some stupid kid from the '60s who threw a football for them? What if our dogs are spending their whole lives with us wanting to get back to an owner they had before me? Before you? These are very stressful thoughts to have!!
4. Are you a cat person? "I was hoping that question wouldn't come up, because that's too tough," Quaid bemoaned when ET asked him to pitch the movie for cat people. "Being a dog person myself, I think I'm a little too biased to answer that. But there is a cat in the film..."
A Dog's Purpose is in theaters now.