‘A Dog’s Purpose’: No dramatic bite

Does “A Dog’s Purpose” hit audiences with the same emotional punch of similar animal-based narrative, or leave audiences unsatisfied with a shallow, undeveloped series of plots?

For Valentine’s, I took my fiancée to see the new movie “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017). Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, and adapted from the novel of the same by William Bruce Cameron, the picture tells the story of a dog who goes through multiple lives, dying and being reborn again, in a cyclic manner in order to make a permanent connection and to find his true purpose.

The way that the dog Bailey moves about in time, through reincarnation, in my mind calls back to novels such as Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse” Five and Alexie’s “Flight” (though in their stories the narrators move forward and backward in time; in this film it’s all just a forward progression). This concept of a reincarnating spirit may scandalize some fundamentalist Christian viewers, but speaking as a student here at a Christian school, allow me to dispell any issues right off the bat and say this: The film as a work of fiction is not proclaiming any factual truth, but rather is attempting to gather at the symbolic nature of man’s relationship with his canine relationship. With that in mind, let us please explore the film and see whether it succeeded or not.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let us get into the film.

What did I think, and did I like it? Well that’s a tad hard to explain, but I will try my best.

Multiple plots

The main story involves a young boy named Ethan and his family as they take home the precious, multi-lived dog who they name Bailey. This bond between boy and dog is a loving, inseparable one — much like the relationship depicted in “Where the Red Fern Grows”; it surpasses the struggles of a family being torn apart by a father’s increasing alcoholic rages and a rival classmate’s destructive behavior. Even the bittersweet affection of a short lived high school romance does not compare to the bond we have seen formed on screen, culminating in a nearly perfect ending to the film about an hour into the whole thing. Which of course joggles my senses, but I was with my girl and she was enjoying the ride. So what reason did I have to complain?

The dog comes back several times. Once as a female K-9 unit who risks her life to save her lonely partner, then as a cute little pup who helps a young African American college student finally find love outside of her shell, and again as a dog made to suffer loneliness at the hands of stereotypical “trailer trash.” Each little segway has its own signature up and down, until finally we come full circle years later, back to the same Ethan, aged and cantankerous, reuniting with a pure spirit that never dies.

This is all well and good, but did I like it? That’s not so easy to answer.

A unconventional narrative

I dug the concept. A dog who comes back and gives us a glimpse at the world through his eyes (or hers, given the gender swap in the part with the cop), makes for engaging character and plot development. It makes for me want to invest 2 hours to see what will happen. It’s just the content within that wasn’t so great.

The drama consisted of extreme lows and extreme highs in the vein of Hallmark movies, and that doesn’t set well with me. I really got into the main story that moved uninterrupted up until the one hour mark—that was when they introduced new side plots in order to make the structure more complicated, but then it became garbled and it was jarring. Only the characters of the main story had any real development; the Police officer hinted at a wife who left, the college student lived a romantic comedy cliché, and the trailer park snippet was just insulting to anyone with a sense of humanity. That these side stories came in when they did, and in the manner that they did, pulled me out of the movie and made it hard to jump back into the main story later on. This is just not well structured story telling or cinema.

Then there’s the issue of the message, the crux of what the movie wants to say. For this film in particular we come to a dime store moral about how a dog’s purpose is to show love for their masters (“packs” as Bailey calls them), and to simply be present when needed. How wonderful, but anybody who’s anybody knows that. How long have dogs and humans been cohabitating now? How many centuries? Give me a break!

Wasted potential

With this expressed sentiment, I probably seem too harsh. It’s true: Part of me did like this movie. But I really wanted to like it more and just couldn’t. I could not pull myself into caring for these characters in a profound way. Everything only scratched the surface of where it needed to go; the film only explored the superficial depths of its themes and symbols. There was so much that could have been done here that just wasn’t, and that was disappointing to say the least. I was built up for a bit of a letdown, and I cannot forgive that.

There was also the issue of what this movie wanted to be. Was it a drama or a comedy? Some flicks blur the lines with real relish— “Groundhog Day” (1993) is a perfect example. But “A Dog’s Purpose” seemed only partially formed on the page when they began production. I cannot fairly recommend a movie without first telling you what kind of movie; but how can I do that here when I don’t know exactly what it is? Isn’t that frustrating?

So in conclusion I would say that this movie is worth maybe one or two views if you want a simple, unchallenging story. If you want your brain teased a little with some complexity in your drama, go see another recent release, “Fences” (2016). That flick was intense!

James Moore is a contributor to The Daily Runner.