Josh Gad’s opening voiceover in “A Dog’s Purpose” asks: “What is the meaning of life?”
You might think: I don’t know, but I don’t think a movie about dog reincarnation is going to tell me.
He goes on: “Are we here for a reason?” Puppies? “Is there a point to any of this?” Probably not, but hopefully puppies.
Turns out, the answer to that last question is a resounding no. It’s not hard to guess why any studio would want to make a movie based on W. Bruce Cameron’s bestselling novel, one that’s ostensibly designed to appeal to the millions of people who turn cute dog videos viral. However, “A Dog’s Purpose” is a lot harder to understand when you consider that it’s a kids’ movie featuring multiple dog characters suffering and dying — and when you consider that it’s directed by Lasse Hallström, who also gave us “My Life As A Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Chocolat.”
This is the setup: Our narrator, as voiced by Gad, is a dog whose soul is reborn in different dog bodies several times. In the very first scene, we’re introduced to a charming mutt before he is promptly trapped by the kind of net normally reserved for cartoons. “That was it?” says Gad, as the screen fades to a swirl of colors meant to represent the afterlife.
Faster than you can say “PETA boycott,” he’s back in another puppy body, this time as a golden retriever. Determined to permanently scar the children who see this movie, the puppy then nearly dies of dehydration in an overheated pickup truck, neck hanging off the seat and tongue lolling out of his mouth, before a heroic mother/son duo smash in the window to take him home and nurse him back to health. Yes, we know: No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But playacted suffering is no fun to watch.
From there, the movie’s major narrative emerges. It boils down to this: a boy loves his dog. Little Ethan (Bryce Gheispar) names the puppy Bailey and trains him to do all sorts of crazy things, like springboard off of Ethan’s back and catch a deflated football like the Gabby Douglas of dog Olympics. Ethan’s dad (Luke Kirby) is a traveling salesman who drinks too much, and his mom (Juliet Rylance) likes to garden.
Little Ethan turns into teenage Ethan (K.J. Apa, soon to become hot Archie Andrews of the CW’s “Riverdale”), and the lonely boy is now a full-fledged football star complete with adoring girlfriend, Hannah (Britt Robertson). As Bailey frolics around town with them, he makes funny dog observations about how much they like to lick each other and look for things they lost inside each other’s mouths.
After middle Ethan heads off to college, Bailey gets so tired he loses the will to live. This time Bailey comes back as, oh my god, a girl. After a joke that essentially amounts to “Where’d my thing go?,” Ellie the German Shepherd lives a pretty miserable existence as a police dog, overworked and underpaid. In a scene that was apparently important enough to endanger a dog actor’s life, Ellie saves a hostage from drowning before dying from a gunshot incurred while saving her owner.
Returning as the Corgi companion to a reclusive student, our immortal narrator falls in love with another dog who happens to belong to the friendly guy always flirting with his owner. As their family grows, so does the Corgi, and we see his face fur grow grey in what is almost certainly cinema’s first time-lapse of an aging dog.
In the final chapter, Bailey is reborn as a mutt named Buddy, who begins his life chained up outside a dilapidated split-level by owners (read: offensive stereotypes), sending a disturbing message that poor people abuse animals. Buddy escapes, and his nose leads him to a familiar farm where he finds — can you guess? — old Ethan, played by Dennis Quaid, looking like the poor man’s Dennis Quaid, which he may be to have agreed to do this movie.
What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? Is there a point to any of this? We may never know, but knowing this movie exists may bring some viewers one step closer to giving up on the whole damn thing.
“A Dog’s Purpose” opens in theaters January 27.