Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Let’s push the current controversy aside for a minute. We’ll get there.
MY DOG SKIP, HACHI: A DOG’S TALE, and OLD YELLER. These are films demonstrative of the strong bond between humans and dogs. They also unabashedly make you weep buckets. No matter which way you look at it, director Lasse Hallström’s A DOG’S PURPOSE reinforces the proven fact that dogs are outstanding, but even more magnificent are the bonds between owner and “man’s best friend.” Adapted from W. Bruce Cameron’s best-selling novel, the doggo-driven film is a genuinely heartwarming tale about the enriching gifts these relationships bring. It’s guaranteed to make your heart swell.
The unconditional love emanating from a doggo’s deep, soulful eyes is enough to render the coldest of hearts into a puddle of warm, mushy goo. One look from an adorbz, boop-able pupper is enough to make a Nazi’s face melt. However, as the film immediately posits, we don’t realize how existential our dogs’ thoughts truly are. In fact, they wrestle with the same thoughts we do: What’s the meaning of life? Is there a point to it all? Are we here for a reason? Over the course of five decades (as demarcated by a few innocuous pop song needle drops) and through the lives of multiple dogs, one spirited pupper’s soul (voiced by Josh Gad) will figure out his purpose.
Cameron, along with fellow screenwriters Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, puts across many sweet sentiments that grab hold of dog lovers’ hearts. It’s a heartrending notion to imagine I might be able to see my dog’s soul in another dog down the line – a fable I can tell myself in my impending future grief process (side note: my dog will be living forever, thank you). The filmmakers definitely nail the comedies and tragedies of living with a dog. Albeit a tad rushed, there’s a good balance between the tears of sadness (leaving for college, old age, sickness, sudden death) and tears of joy. Plus, there’s a very heartening message infused – subtly reinforced a few times – about bad beginnings yielding positive results.
The vignettes, which tie together with one overarching connection, never go overboard on their “dog in peril” situations. They deal with real world problems like neglect and bad pet ownership minus any graphic exploitation. Though it does throw a wide net with a knowingly manipulative score (one that hardly ever stops), it’s hard to deny the inherent emotions of the situations. Each of “these guys’” enhances their humans’ lives: For golden retriever Bailey and his human Ethan (played by Bryce Gheisar, K.J. Apa and Dennis Quaid), the relationship is about sharing in firsts and failures. German Shepard police pup Ellie and Carlos’ (John Ortiz) bond lies in duty and slow-developing devotion. Cute corgi Tino and Maya’s (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) relationship is about mending broken hearts and filling life with love. And for St. Bernard mix Buddy, it’s about finding destiny in a full circle moment.
That said, this isn’t as flawless as Hallström’s other “dog” movies (MY LIFE AS A DOG and HACHI), but it’s still strong on emotional power. Stuff with Ethan’s alcoholic father Jim (Luke Kirby) lacks a satisfying payoff when there are plenty of opportune times – especially in the third act – to definitively connect the father and son’s struggles. The dog catcher opening could’ve been cut for time as it serves no purpose. Timing between the dog reincarnations is also a little off, pushing through highly impactful, emotional moments a smidge too quickly. Our tears have barely fallen before we’re on to the next pupper.
As for the seemingly ulterior-motivated controversy currently brewing, I have a few questions of my own. Why did the owner of this footage wait 14 months to turn it in? That reeks of a smear campaign by a certain pet advocacy organization who wish “pet keeping never existed.” Think about that for a second: an agency who wants to do away with pet ownership wants you to not see a movie about the joys of pet ownership. It’s clear there should be better safety enforcement for animal actors and training for those who work with them, and the folks responsible for overseeing this are already taking action. Still, all the facts surrounding this incident haven’t been properly digested yet, and it’s imperative to think about who this controversy really benefits.
As humans, we’ve taken an unspoken oath to be dogs’ providers and protectors. Responsible owners are steadfast, fastidiously watching over the safety of their constant companions. These four-legged, furry “guys” teach us caring, compassion and responsibility. How can we ever repay them? We can only do so through love and kindness.
A DOG’S PURPOSE opens on January 27.