Dog lovers will flock to see “A Dog’s Purpose,” based on the 2010 best-selling novel written by American humorist W. Bruce Cameron, but most will leave the theater disappointed. Top billed veteran Dennis Quaid and actress Peggy Lipton (of Mod Squad fame) star alongside a variety of dogs in this overly simple and quite sugary story of a dog who experiences multiple lives. Director Lasse Holmström delivers, amidst criticism of animal abuse, a weird and basically pointless movie that never rises above a low growl.
The dog, that starts life as a mutt (and dies within moments of the film’s opening), returns as a red retriever, a German Shepard, a corgi, and a big, shaggy, St. Bernard-type dog. They are all enthusiastically voiced and articulated by Josh Gad (a good thing). Beginning life as Bailey, adopted by a boy Ethan (at age eight Bryce Gheisar and as a teen KJ Apa), the pup moves through his (at one point her) lives - with Ethan, a lonely police officer, a shy student, a punk-rock chick, where he is neglected mercilessly, and finally he manages to return to the aged Ethan (Quaid) who lives alone – ironically, since breaking up, as a teen, with his girlfriend Hannah (Britt Robertson). He is where we see Bailey’s “purpose.”
Quaid and Lipton are on screen less than 15 percent of the film’s 100-minute run time. Quaid does an impressive job with the little stretch he has – he’s the perfect cynical loner, whose hard heart softens to the love of a dog. In fairness, the film is about the pooch and his multiple lives. Apa and Robertson fill a good deal of the human aspect of the film, but facets of their stories are extremely dark – unsettling actually. We should also keep in mind that in order to come back, Bailey has to go. Gad’s witty voiceovers can’t save W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky’s script with limited substance and off-color humor (of course there are fart jokes and other lowbrow witticisms). The dogs are adorable, but at times the doggie dialogue simply doesn’t seem appropriate or fitting.
Ultimately, the shallow messages and the philosophical misconceptions and the overt sugariness and sentimentality make “A Dog’s Purpose” somewhat of a mess. Some actions of humans in the film are deplorable and even a few of Bailey’s behaviors might end any other pup on a short list at the animal shelter (or puppy training academy). There are several genuinely cute and tender moments in “A Dog’s Purpose,” so it is not a total waste. Attending a matinee or waiting for home release might be the best choice, as the film only earns a D+ or a C- at best.