You don’t need an animal-rights group’s boycott to give you permission to avoid A Dog’s Purpose. You can skip it just because it’s clumsily manipulative dreck.
The movie, directed by Lasse Hallstrom and based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, serves up one cloying story after another as it drags us through the multiple lives of a dog named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad). Bailey dies, as dogs do, yet keeps being reincarnated, as a different breed and sometimes a different sex.
He has a few cute mannerisms and tricks that are consistent from life to life, which ultimately becomes tear-jerkingly important as he tries to find his way back to Ethan (Bryce Gheisar, K. J. Apa or Dennis Quaid, depending on which year and dog it is), an early owner with whom he was especially tight.
Along the way, though, he has various other owners, allowing the movie to indulge in assorted hero-dog fantasies. Save people from a burning house? Check. Plunge into raging waters to keep a child from drowning? Check. Nudge a lonely woman into a romantic relationship? Check. Only "Timmy has fallen into a well" is missing.
It was that raging-waters scene, by the way, that incurred the wrath of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has urged a boycott of the film. A video published by TMZ showed a dog resisting being put in the water during the scene’s filming; others have said the video is misleading.
The PETA opposition will no doubt trouble some of the dog lovers at whom this film is aimed. (Reviewer discloser: I own a Golden Retriever with whom I am extremely close, to say the least.) It’s difficult to resist on a superficial level anyway, because hey, it’s dogs delivering insipid lines about bacon and the joys of eating from the garbage.
It’s also family friendly, the vignettes being nothing but a string of nonthreatening clichés with a dog injected into them. Which brings up another shortcoming of this film: It seems likely to prompt youngsters to ask for a dog, but it depicts almost none of the challenges and responsibilities of pet ownership. In this glossy world, dogs require little maintenance. They’re just there, at the ready, waiting for you to fall into a river so they can pull you out.