If you’re among the masses who remain totally convinced that 20th Century Fox missed a trick by not recruiting Werner Herzog to direct Marley and Me back in 2008, Lasse Hallström’s latest, A Dog’s Purpose (aka Nietzsche and Me), is probably the closest thing you’re ever likely to get to consolation. This may look like cute, canine fun for all the family, but don’t be fooled – that’s what it wants you to think – the reality is a bleak, so-called adventure in which the film’s ‘Marley’ is euthanised within the first five minutes, before being promptly reborn as a Golden Retriever called Bailey, whose later death leads to a further two incarnations. Also tackled here are: the Cuban Missile Crises, domestic abuse, depression and animal neglect; not forgetting, of course, the philosophical question of ‘being’ that drives the plot.
Josh Gad voices an internal narration for Hallström’s canine protagonist through its gender-fluid, Saṃsāra existence, opening the film with those age old questions: ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘Are we here for a reason?’ and ‘Is there a point to any of this?’ The last question is far too easy bait here. Gad’s initial feral form being a brief one, the longest stretch of the film revolves around his life as Bailey, under the care of eight year old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) who, along with his Mum (Juliet Rylance – stepdaughter of Sir Mark), rescues the pup from an overheating car. Boy and dog quickly bond but it is not long before Ethan has matured into the adolescent world of girls and high school American Football. Things take a turn for the worse when Lassie Bailey is forced to rescue Ethan, his girlfriend (Tomorrowland’s Britt Robertson) and family, from their burning home, but is unable to prevent his owner falling from a window, breaking his leg, and ending his dream of a sports scholarship. No more fetch, no more fun.
Throughout all of this, Bailey’s inner voice is our constant guide. Whilst naïve narrational voices do have a sold history in storytelling, in A Dog’s Purpose the perspective is one played for laughs with a good dollop of inane stupidity. Imagine the devastating opening of Up, had Pixar decided to have the montage narrated by Doug, the talking dog of the film’s second half. Whilst Hallström’s direction is genially pleasing, and Bailey is – without a doubt – entirely lovable, Gad’s monologue can’t help but feel like a distraction; akin to a joke that’s killed the moment it’s explained. ‘Was having fun the point?…No, it couldn’t be that simple’. Would that it were so.
Speaking of death, Bailey tires in Ethan’s departure to college, and, although the pair get a final, teary goodbye (shamelessly but successfully tugging on the heartstrings), old age wins out. His next incarnation, a German Shepherd police dog in the eighties, is soon followed by a Corgi called Tino, before his final reincarnation as a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd, by the name of Waffles. In this last life, Waffles is adopted by a neglectful couple who fail to look after him and eventually abandon him as a stray. Worry not, an upbeat ending naturally sweeps in to save the day.
Honestly, at times, watching A Dog’s Purpose feels like experiencing a Richard Curtis-directed remake of Amores Perros, just one with none of Iñárittu’s depth and little by way of Curtis’ meaningful charm. It is literally ‘Four Funerals and Wedding’. If you struggle to attach yourself to Ethan and family, as viewed through Bailey’s dopey eyes, then you’ve no chance with the latter three owners, each granted only the slightest of character arcs before being unceremoniously dumped by the inevitable cyclical momentum of the plot. The film’s based on a best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, and maybe the conceit works better there; I don’t know, not having personally read it. Here, however, the incessant focus on death, rebirth and purpose, restrains emotional depth and overcasts every scene with a bleak sense of dread as we wait for each incarnation to die.
Woofs and woes that the film may be, it would be remise not to conclude by noting that A Dog’s Purpose does contain its fair share of genuine puppy love, purely by virtue of the warmly shot mass of animals on the screen. It’s not enough to save the film from being a bizarrely confused bore (and it has somewhat been overshadowed by allegations of on-set animal cruelty), but it is hard to feel bad-will towards a film with such utterly adorable leads.