A Dog's Purpose review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
What can you do with dogs in movies? In the many years I’ve been reviewing movies, I’ve seen it all: Dogs that can talk, dogs that do karate, dogs that pilot robots, dogs playing basketball, dogs playing football (both kinds) and dogs in space. They’ve all smeared in my memory as a blur of tipped tables, chewed up shoes and so many barks, yelps, whines and groans. The only dog movie I’ve seen in past years that had any amount of originality or character was White God, in which a dog goes on a journey home that ends with him as a vicious beast leading other wronged dogs on a murderous rampage. Ah, what a refreshing distraction from this tired sub-genre of film that relies almost exclusively on dogs looking cute.
I went into A Dog’s Purpose fully expecting the answer to be eating food, being pet and looking adorable, but was both surprised and dismayed by the film’s ambition. It begins with the puppy Tobey being born and his first internal thought, voiced by Josh Gad, is that of comprehending his reason for existing. How mature for such a young pup to have such deep thoughts. Maybe there will be more to this dogs than meets the eye. Maybe he’ll have something to say with his interesting perspective on life, distant from our human conceptions of life. Well, he might have been capable of such thoughts if he wasn’t too busy eating a bunch of hot dogs off the ground and then farting loudly in the car.
But I can’t say I blame the dog. Life is more enjoyable with his loving boy Ethan to feed and play with him. His life probably seems simpler and not as worth the contemplation with such pleasures. To us humans, however, Tobey is just another dog doing typical dog things in a typical dog movie. He digs up the yard, chews some shoes, relishes being pet, tips over tables during dinner and spends the night in the garage for being a bad dog.
But with the added narration/commentary by Josh Gad, there’s an inconsistent tone to the dog’s behavior. From the opening narration, we know this dog is aware of death, but somehow can’t figure out a cat is dead. What could have been a great moment for contemplating his own mortality is turned into a silly moment where that rascally Tobey digs up a cat corpse and brings it in the house. This shifting of tones for a dog movie makes some of the more intentionally comical moments more perplexing and dark than they should be. The scene where Tobey makes a mess of dad’s big dinner with his boss is typical sitcom hi-jinks, but take a darker turn as dad doesn’t get that promotion and turns into a violent alcoholic. But don’t question that too much - look at the cute doggie!
Of course, Tobey can’t be there for Ethan for the rest of his life and must die in a somber scene as he is put to sleep, his last vision that of Ethan. But Tobey doesn’t pass away into the next afterlife, I assume, as he still hasn’t discovered his true purpose. His soul is then reincarnated into a host of different dogs as he lives through the lives of being a cop dog, another family dog and an abandoned dog. This eventually leads to the bookend plot of Tobey finally finding an aged Ethan (Dennis Quaid) and finally finding his true purpose: To hook Ethan up with his high school sweetheart. Yeah, it only took him four lifetimes to figure that out.
As with most dog movies, A Dog’s Purpose exists in a weird world where dogs can do anything. In his second incarnation, Tobey can easily jump into raging waters and pull a girl to safety, without much concern from his police partner that runs after a criminal instead of saving a drowning child. In his third incarnation, Tobey is apparently allowed indoors at a fancy restaurant, only so that he can chase another dog and topple over the tables. He can also eat loads of human food to comfort his female owner, long past the point that any normal dog would topple over dead from eating pizza and ice cream.
There are twinges of scenes where I could sense the movie trying to be about something more deeper, philosophical and emotional. It’s faint, however, as the movie often loses sight of these thoughts so that Josh Gad can perform his Homeward Bound audition of commenting over a dog’s actions. And when the dog apparently has unlimited tries at finding his purpose in life, it really brings into question how many times you can watch a dog die before you stop caring. What’s the point in feeling sorry for Tobey when he’ll come back in another form with most of his old memories? Wait, are they the same memories? Is there a limit to Tobey’s reincarnation? Why am I asking these questions about a silly dog movie? Can’t I just enjoy the cuteness of doggies doing doggie things and weep when they perish? I would, if only the movie didn’t have such broad ambitions, only to trivialize them in the end.