Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky said there are two kinds of scenes in screenplays: “the Pet the Dog scene and the Kick the Dog scene.” “A Dog’s Purpose” manages to work in both. You might be surprised that this sappy tribute to man’s best friend kills its main character within moments. A stray puppy is snapped up by a 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 dogs go to heaven, but “A Dog’s Purpose,” directed by Lasse Hallstrom, takes a different approach, suggesting that dogs are reincarnated. We follow the lives of a pup voiced by Josh Gad: first, as a stray puppy; then a red retriever named Bailey in the 1960s and ’70s; a German Shepherd police dog; a chubby ’80s corgi; and finally a neglected St. Bernard with a long road home.
For all his forms and lives, it’s always Bailey inside, retaining all the memories and experiences along the way. Bailey is an existential dog, constantly questioning the meaning of life and the reason he is where he is. To have fun? To make humans happy? That seems to be the case, but Bailey can’t stop questioning. Oddly enough, he settles on “be here now.”
The section dedicated to Bailey and his boy, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, then K.J. Apa), takes place in a “Pleasantville”-inspired simulacrum of mid-century Americana. It feels odd, cramming in dramatics of first loves, alcoholic fathers and tragic events, none of which is supported by the format of the film, which requires a kind of shallow storytelling that’s all about endearing dog anecdotes.
The real problem here, though, is that it’s cheesy pablum, relying on hokey burger joint and Friday night football game stereotypes to take the place of character development.
The other sections are cute tales of animal heroism or dedication, the kind of thing you encounter in Reader’s Digest or on a very special episode of “Oprah.” The novelty of the film comes from its dog’s perspective, as Gad breathlessly inhabits the attention-addled, food-obsessed psyche of the canine character. There are digs at cats, cutesy misunderstandings about what donkeys are called, and speculation about why humans press their mouths together.
A late-breaking scandal about this feel-good animal flick, involving a troubling video of a reluctant dog, an aggressive trainer and a dangerous water stunt, threatens the possible success of the film. But with or without the scandal, the film has all the emotional resonance of a dog-themed coffee table book. Adorable, but forgettable.
“A Dog’s Purpose”
Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. 2:00. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.