If the mere sight of adorable puppies or frolicsome doggies automatically splashes a smile across your face, then you'll likely lap up A Dog's Purpose, the syrupy-sweet tale of a cute canine who is reincarnated time and again through the decades as different breeds with various owners. But if you are, say, a cat or non-pet person, then this ain't the flick for you.
The central character of A Dog's Purpose is a golden retriever named Bailey, whose thoughts are appealingly voiced by Josh Gad. Bailey is rescued from a stuffy, locked truck on a sweltering summer day in 1962 by eight-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mom (Juliet Rylance). They take Bailey in, despite the protests of Ethan's strict, alcoholic dad (Luke Kirby), and the boy instantly bonds with the playful pooch as the two get into lots of innocent trouble together. Years later, Bailey helps a now-teenage Ethan (KJ Apa) capture the heart of a pretty gal named Hannah (Britt Robertson) at a county fair. The cuddlesome couple fall in love and plan on going off to college together, but unforeseen circumstances crop up and threaten to derail their plans. This opening story is given the most screen time by far, and for good reason: Ethan, Hannah, and (of course) Bailey all pop up again near the end to set up the movie's heartwarming (some would say treacly) finale.
Bailey, sadly, eventually succumbs to old age. But -- wait for it -- he is quickly reincarnated as a German shepherd named Ellie (again voiced by Gad), who is shocked to learn he is now a she, and is being raised to be part of a K-9 police unit in Chicago. Adventure follows; however, so does tragedy. Yet Ellie's soul is soon born anew as yet another lovable mutt, this time a corgi who's adopted by a lonely college student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). And thus the story goes -- "et cetera, et cetera," as the King of Siam would say.
A Dog's Purpose looks like something you'd see on the Hallmark Channel, and the caliber of acting rises to that level, with the exception of Gad and a very good Dennis Quaid as the adult Ethan in the movie's shopworn final segment. The low-wattage portrayals are especially surprising and disappointing since the picture was directed by Lasse Hallström, whose work includes such well-acted films as My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
The movie has come under fire with the release of an online video that purportedly shows a German shepherd being forced into rushing waters against its will, prompting some animal-rights activists to call for a boycott. Putting that troublesome aspect aside (as well as the lackluster acting and mawkish script), A Dog's Purpose is a likeable family film about the unconditional love between dogs and their owners, one that kids in particular will enjoy. Parents should use caution with younger tykes who might be upset seeing Bailey continually perish, although Gad's amusing, Olaf-like performance is a constant soothing and reassuring balm that lets us know Bailey is really just fine. Even still, dog lovers of all stripes would be wise to bring along a box of tissues, just in case.