Directed by Lasse Halström (2017)
by Honor Devi Thapa
The PG rating for A Dog's Purpose implies the target audience is young children - but with controversy surrounding a movie filled with substance abuse, animal abuse, domestic violence, arson, child endangerment and the death of multiple animals, children and adults alike might leave theatres feeling emotionally disheveled.
Directed by Lasse Hallström, A Dog's Purpose is based on the eponymous novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Before the premiere of the movie, TMZ published video footage of a dog on the set of A Dog’s Purpose looking terrified as he is forced into dangerous looking water against his will. The controversy has hurt the film’s marketability and even led to boycotting and the cancellation of its premiere. Producer Gavin Polone has expressed his views on the incident, as well as his veganism and animal rights activism. He also asks a poignant question: if the person who filmed the video truly cared about animal safety, why did they wait over a year to show the footage? (TMZ probably offers a lot of money for controversial footage before an imminent blockbuster release).
The American Humane Association reportedly said its representative on set has been suspended and the incident is being investigated. As for the movie itself, the real question is whether or not people will want to see it regardless of any alleged scandal.
A Dog’s Purpose follows Bailey (Josh Gad), a dog who is continuously reincarnated, each time questioning the purpose of existence with childlike humor and wonder. Bailey’s narration is cloying and repetitive, questioning “but what is my purpose?” again and again - which is fine for children, who enjoy and learn from repetition. (Hint: It's not nearly as amusing for adults).
The aspect of reincarnation seems surprisingly modern for an American movie, and could be a great way to introduce children to various religious beliefs. Each death, however, is heart wrenching, and each life is full of dark and troubling experiences. In what was ostensibly the dog's favorite life, Bailey is adopted and adored by a young boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Ethan's father (Luke Kirby) is definitively an alcoholic, which leads to more than one altercation between him and his son (later played by K. J. Apa).
Perhaps children can relate to this aspect of the movie - as stated by The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "over 10% of children live with a parent with alcohol problems, according to a 2012 study." After Ethan’s father becomes physically violent with Ethan's mother (Juliet Rylance), Ethan bravely forces his father to move out of the house.
Later, a jealous (i.e. emotionally unstable) peer commits arson, burning down Ethan's entire house while he and his mother are sleeping. Luckily, Bailey saves the day by waking Ethan up before it's too late. The drama and intensity of these scenes feel gratuitous and give one pause: in a world of instant gratification, how violent and emotionally manipulative does a movie have to be in order to sustain the short attention span of a child born in the 21st century? After another upsetting death, Bailey is onto another volatile life.
In a new life, our protagonist is a female police dog, trained to find weapons and criminals. Bailey is a hero again, valiantly saving the life of a 12 year-old girl kidnapped by a man (a pedophile?) who subsequently throws her off a bridge high above treacherous water. Bailey jumps into the river (for the record: the dog actor doesn’t look scared at all in this scene) and drags the girl to safety before being fatally shot by the kidnapper. Another distressing death, and onto another life.
In another disturbing scene, we find Bailey in a devastating and (sadly) realistic situation: a dog spending its life tied up outside. He is neglected and most likely starving, spending countless days unfed, unwashed, and unloved. Bailey is eventually abandoned completely, and somehow makes his way back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Although he is blissfully reunited with his best friend, Bailey decides that Ethan is "still sad." What does this mean? As a police dog, Bailey noted his owner's loneliness, and in his life as a pudgy Corgi, Bailey saw that his college-aged owner was also lonely until she got married and had children.
With this in mind, Bailey decides that being alone is probably “the worst thing that can happen” to someone, and manages to lead Ethan's high school sweetheart (Britt Robertson/Peggy Lipton) back to him so Ethan can apologize for breaking up with her many decades ago and they can get married and live sappily ever after.
There's nothing wrong with wanting human companionship, but the movie fails to recognize that there is also nothing wrong with being single. In a time where people are getting married and having children later in life (if at all), this message feels patronizing and anachronistic (even if the movie does take place in previous decades). Is it natural for humans to get lonely from time to time? Sure. But, isn't that a dog's purpose? An animal’s love is unconditional. As any animal lover can agree, having a pet can enrich and add meaning to one’s life. I have a cat and I can assure you, he is better than any boyfriend I've ever had. (He's sweet, loyal, loves to cuddle, and we almost never argue!) The idea that a person needs to be in a relationship in order to be happy is not only boring and old-fashioned - it's simply untrue. And it's a dangerous mindset for people to fall into.
As seen in the trailer, Bailey eventually convinces Ethan that he is in fact BAILEY from all those years ago, reincarnated as a new dog. We are (thankfully) spared one more death scene and Bailey explains that a dog's purpose is simply to exist, and be present in the moment (another Buddhist teaching). We leave Bailey to enjoy his second life with Ethan.
Ultimately, this movie is filled with saccharine, forgettable characters, and adorable puppies. While there are some genuinely tender moments, don’t let the PG rating fool you - A Dog's Purpose tugs violently at the heartstrings. If you're a parent looking for ways to explain some of life's big questions - for instance, how to teach children to cope with the death of a pet or loved one (and perhaps even his/her own mortality), or if movies about dogs make you cry and you're ready to let it all out, bring some tissues and enjoy - and don’t forget to hug your pets when you get home.