What does it all mean? Why are we here? And exactly how many brutal doggy death scenes are we about to be subjected to in the next 100 minutes? The answers, according to A Dog’s Purpose, are: (a) Inconclusive; (b) Treats, love, and belly rubs; and (c) Approximately four. Based on W. Bruce Cameron’s tail-wagging, tear-duct-mining 2010 best-seller, Purpose follows the path of a canine spirit (voiced with dopey-sweet wonder by Josh Gad) as it passes through a series of acutely adorable forms: a man’s best friend for all decades, breeds, and seasons.
A brief first burst of life — as a feral puppy caught on the wrong side of Animal Control — meets its end in a (mercifully offscreen) euthanasia. But rebirth quickly comes tumbling in via the furry vessel of a golden retriever named Bailey. Adopted by a nuclear family plucked straight from a Norman Rockwell fever dream, Bailey is a lovable scamp who romps and tumbles and regularly devours household nonedibles, happily impervious to the occasional dark cloud — the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dad’s increasing fondness for a morning bourbon — that passes overhead. Even as his boy companion, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), grows from a goofy kid to a chiseled All-American (Riverdale’s KJ Apa) with grown-up distractions of his own, Bailey remains his faithful chaperone, though his graying muzzle and slowing gait eventually signal a second, imminent farewell. (With or without inner immortality, earthly dog years still apply.)
And so Purpose’s reincarnations roll on: a circa-1970s German-shepherd police dog with a mustachioed human partner (John Ortiz) and a wet nose for contraband; a stubby-legged corgi who lives for leftover pizza and very short walks in the park; a shaggy Saint Bernardish mutt left to languish in a bleak, junk-strewn yard. Some owners are kind, some are nasty or neglectful; nearly all of them are lonely, which is perhaps the movie’s most abiding acknowledgment of emotions outside its neat spectrum. (As for the grim reaping of its four-legged stars, don’t worry: Death comes in on the softest paws — a cosmic swirl of light somewhere between lava lamp and Laser Floyd.)
Director Lasse Hallström, a veteran of sprawling casts and story lines (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), shoots in sumptuously rich Technicolor, even if narratively it often feels more like he’s working with finger paints. Each segment, duly framed by textbook fashion and music cues (headscarves and Simon & Garfunkel for the ’60s, Jheri curls and a-ha in the ’80s), unfolds with the soothing blandness of a bedtime story. And Purpose itself plays like a family film from another era, its gentle sensibilities a million miles removed from the winky pop culture references and meta layers of most modern all-ages entertainment. The effect is sweet, benignly retro, and just a little bit boring; a comforting Milk Bone for the soul. B