A Dog’s Purpose, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron, combines the philosophical belief that living beings are reborn into a different physical body after biological death with the voiceover narrative technique of Look Who’s Talking. The main character, Dog, dies in multiple wrenching scenes and is subsequently reborn; during his many lives, his thoughts are voiced by Josh Gad, and he engages in a lot of internal doggy eschatology, wondering about the meaning of life and what he’s meant to do.
Well, a dog's purpose, it turns out, is to be reincarnated into a different sappy mini-Hallmark movie after every death. Dog’s first incarnation doesn't last long; he's born to a stray mother, caught by an old-timey dog catcher with a butterfly net and (presumably) euthanized. He passes through a veil of light into a luckier life No. 2, as a setter named Bailey adopted by a family in the 1960s.
Ethan, the boy who finds him, is the first of the film’s many archetypes: an all-American, dungarees-wearing kid who probably keeps a frog and a slingshot in his pocket and really loves dogs. His dad’s an unhappy salesman who drinks too much, while his mom is fighting a losing battle to save their marriage. It’s the film’s longest sequence, spanning decades; all the characters grow and age, they experience setbacks and upheavals and, eventually, the grown Ethan leaves for college, confusing the elderly Bailey. He sees Ethan only one final time, months later, when Ethan’s grandparents phone him at school from the vet’s office and tell him to come home quickly. Bailey is ecstatically happy to see his boy again as the light fades from his eyes.
Which brings us to A Dog's Purpose's purpose. In Blade Runner, the cops test people for replicantism by asking them questions intended to evoke an emotional response — most of which involve animals dying. That’s a really easy button to push: big, red and shiny, easily accessible for even the clumsiest interrogator. Director Lasse Hallström, known for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat (not to mention My Life as a Dog, which, unlike this film, isn’t about an actual canine), isn’t notably clumsy, but given a script that called for repeatedly mashing that big, red button, he’s smacked on it like the bongos in a Santana song.
A less brainy (and much less violent) Amores Perros, the film is ridiculously manipulative, guiding the audience through scenes of doggy loneliness and low-grade cruelty from humans — not outright sadism, but terrible neglect. These include Dog being rescued from the cab of a hot truck during his second life, and tied up for the first months of his fifth life in the yard of a thoughtless couple. Dog’s third life, as a female K-9 officer named Ellie, ends when she’s shot by a kidnapping suspect. Her human partner, Carlos, holds her, sobbing, as she bleeds out and wonders why her human is so sad. Whack, whack, whack. That’s the sound of Lasse Hallström hitting the button that activates your anguish. Dog deaths are the low-hangingest of low-hanging fruit; it’s a rare film that pulls that trick four times. It’s exceptionally effective, and Hallström may be testing to see if you’re a replicant (or a cat person).
Dog is anthropomorphized, a childlike figure who misunderstands human behaviors but intuitively grasps their emotions and contemplates the infinite. Weirdly, he remembers all of his previous lives — each incarnation retains all of the memories and experiences of past owners (a detail important to the epically schmaltzy ending). The magical thinking that underpins the story is troublesome if you’re the kind of empiricist who rejects superstitious voodoo bullshit and also knows how dogs’ brains work — they just don’t have the cognition for existential contemplations, or even a working memory longer than two minutes. All dogs have ADD; teaching one to fetch in a squirrel-infested park is an exercise in patience for all three of the species involved. And dogs just don’t think about eternity.
But the film isn’t all that deep; it’s also about dog farts in sealed cars, snuffling around in garbage, and sniffing other dogs’ butts. Hallström and screenwriter Cathryn Michon aim right up the middle, pitching Dog into wild scrapes and misunderstandings that result in collapsed furniture and traumatized cats. The humans are all archetypes too; in the same way that there is only one possible reaction to the image of a cute corgi puppy, there’s only one response to the image of craggy, handsome old Dennis Quaid as the Midwestern farmer who adopts Dog in the film’s final incarnation — he looks like a heroic goddamn Thomas Hart Benton mural; no thinking required.
Somebody like Terrence Malick could maybe find something more substantial to say about the concepts the film addresses — life, eternity, love, death. It would also be four hours long and include imagery from the Big Bang. The scientific answer to the question of a dog's purpose is that humans selectively cross-bred canines over thousands of years to express pleasing and useful traits, among which are big, soulful eyes, unconditional love for the humans that feed them, abilities like hunting and herding and being warm, stinky cuddlebugs.
Unfortunately, they also have short lifespans, and the most difficult part of dog ownership is witnessing their abbreviated passage through all the life stages we will eventually pass through ourselves. Because we see so much of ourselves in them, it’s nearly impossible not to anthropomorphize dogs. Which the filmmakers know, and exploit in the same way that a dog exploits an unattended burrito on the counter — enthusiastically, with no compunctions and not a thought in its head.