What we have here is a case of the tail wagging the dog — wagging the tail so wiggly-waggly-wildly that the dog cannot possibly be enjoying it.
So we begin to discuss A Dog’s Purpose, directed by Lasse Hallström. This dumb, sweet, indulgently weepy movie has all but disappeared in the hubbub over the controversial viral video of a stunt dog — a German shepherd — being forced by his handler into a pool of churning water.
The footage has been a public-relations disaster for the movie, with animal-welfare groups calling for a boycott and people affiliated with the movie countering that the video isn’t an accurate representation of Hercules’ behavior (the dog is named Hercules) — that, among things, Hercules was just flummoxed because this particular stunt was not being staged as it had been rehearsed. That Hercules is happy and well.
But let’s move on to the actual A Dog’s Purpose playing in theaters. The movie wouldn’t tax the intelligence of a flea — it’s about a dog, reborn through many canine lives, in search of meaning and happiness — but even so it succeeds on its own, Kleenex-consuming terms. It’s the Manchester by the Sea of animal movies.
The difference is that Manchester draws you into a story of terrible sadness that makes you reflect on what it means to be human, which is always good reason to sob. Purpose, on the other hand, makes you cry, over and over, because of how upsetting it is to see any dog, young or old, lay down its noble, dutiful, trusting head and quietly submit to death. This is foolproof, sob-generating stuff.
Up to a point, actually, A Dog’s Purpose is very easy to resist. Most annoyingly, it’s narrated with faux-naïf boyishness and puppyish pep by Josh Gad as the dog. He sounds as if he were Tom Sawyer running around on an additional two legs.
(And wouldn’t a dog sound more like John C. Reilly? Yes, it would. Or even Jeremy Irons, depending on the breed.)
But then the dog, a beloved old retriever, expires on the veterinarian’s table, surrounded by the family that loved him, and it’s just awful and you start crying.
He’s immediately resurrected as a brand-new puppy, all bally-bouncy, but you know that inevitably he’ll sink, at the very least, beneath the terrible fact that one human year equals seven dog years. After a few more death scenes, you just give in and sniffle through the rest of the movie — even when the dog somehow has a karmic reconnection with a previous owner (Dennis Quaid), a plot contrivance that’s not only ridiculous but faintly irreligious.
All that being said, however, I and my veil of tears exited a screening of the movie several days before the video had surfaced.
If you arrive at the movie with a mental image of Hercules slipping into that pool, you might be less emotionally enthralled to watch the movie’s dog, in his incarnation as a German-shepherd police dog, heroically swim through dangerous waters. You might reflect on the confusing conflation of a stunt dog’s purpose and a fictional police dog’s. You might also admit to yourself that, short of being named Moses and embarking on a stroll into the Red Sea, you yourself would never brave such waters on command.
It’s a dog’s life, one way or the other, for better or worse.
In theaters Friday, rated PG. Get tickets here.