‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is adorable, but forgettable

Bryce Gheisar hangs out with his pet in “A Dog’s Purpose.” (Joe Lederer/Universal Studios via AP)

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Bryce Gheisar hangs out with his pet in “A Dog’s Purpose.” (Joe Lederer/Universal Studios via AP)

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said there are two kinds of scenes in screenplays: “the Pet the Dog scene and the Kick the Dog scene.” 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.

The section dedicated to Bailey and his boy Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, then K.J. Apa), takes place in a “Pleasantville”-inspired simulacrum of midcentury 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 pablum, 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.

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.


“A Dog’s Purpose”

Grade: C

Starring Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad and Bryce Gheisar. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours.

Bottom line: The format of the film is a shallow, pat storytelling