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Must love dogs – ‘A Dog’s Purpose’

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Canines far outshine human co-stars

Chances are that you’ve heard at least a little about the controversy surrounding “A Dog’s Purpose.” A video from the set seems to show a frightened dog forced to do a stunt during the filming. While it’s clear that deceptive editing and opportunism played a part, the reality is that at best, the video illustrates questionable behavior from some of those involved with the film.

As someone who loves animals – dogs in particular – I struggled with how I would deal with these circumstances. My job is to review movies, but had my ability to fairly and objectively criticize this movie been compromised?

After seeing the film, I feel confident in saying that it had not. “A Dog’s Purpose” is a movie with a good heart telling a well-intentioned story, but the constant tugging of heartstrings ultimately results in a fraying that significantly lessens the overall impact of the film.

Josh Gad (“The Angry Birds Movie”) is Bailey, a dog who lives a number of lives. Each time one of his lives ends, he is reincarnated as another dog. Bailey’s experiences run the gamut – he’s a young boy’s beloved retriever and a German Shepherd police K-9 and a lonely college student’s only friend – but the one through thread is his (and at one point her) quest to determine just what a dog’s purpose might be.

Our primary story is Bailey’s second incarnation – the one where he’s actually Bailey. In the early 1960s, Bailey becomes the pet of a young boy named Ethan – played by Bryce Geihsar (TV’s “Walk the Prank”) as a youngster and KJ Apa (TV’s “Riverdale”) as a teenager. As Ethan grows up, Bailey is his constant companion; the dog even plays a major part in bringing Ethan together with his eventual sweetheart Hannah (Britt Robertson, “Mr. Church”).

But a dog’s life is a sadly short one. Every one of Bailey’s lives leads to him touching someone’s heart, whether it’s police partner Carlos (John Ortiz, TV’s “Togetherness”) or college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, “Textbook Adulthood”) or even someone from a past life with whom he has reconnected (no spoilers, but this is where Dennis Quaid comes in). And through it all, he does his best to uncover his purpose.

Plot-wise, “A Dog’s Purpose” is pretty straightforward. The Ethan-Bailey story is by far the longest, with the subsequent narratives moving fairly briskly from puppyhood to their respective endings. The simplicity of the stories isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; the relative lack of complexity allows for a quick pace.

However, the simple truth is that this film – likely by design – isn’t particularly interested in its human characters. “A Dog’s Purpose” is – unsurprisingly – focused almost entirely on its canine component.

The script – based on the novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron (who also contributed to the adaptation) – derives its emotional impact from the dogs. The human actors generally fade into the background, leaving us to invest our empathy almost entirely in our four-legged friends.

As you might imagine, this proves trying when the dogs in question, well … die. As someone with a low threshold for emotional manipulation under the best of circumstances, I was an easy target; there were four separate moments laden with throat lumps, sniffs and tears over the course of the film.

The cast was fine, if forgettable. Gad did solid work as the film’s narrator, giving voice to the voiceless canine stars. The rest of the cast was serviceable and unspectacular; in all honesty, all they had to do was stay out of the way and let the dogs carry the emotional load. And so they did, with nary a memorable performance – neither positive not negative.

“A Dog’s Purpose” left me emotionally wrung out, yet there was still a degree of disconnect. The impact was real, but somewhat unearned. Animal lovers – while possibly (and understandably) conflicted due to the circumstances surrounding the film – will likely dab away a tear or two while watching this film. And they’ll DEFINITELY want to rush home and give their own pet a loving pat or two.

[2.5 out of 5]

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