Blu-Ray Review: A Dog’s Purpose

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but earlier this year the release of footage of a dog allegedly being mistreated during the filming of a scene on the set of A Dog’s Purpose riled up online activists and went viral quite quickly. It was later proven by independent investigators that the video had been heavily edited and that no animals had been mistreated; however, that follow-up story got quite a bit less attention, so if you’ve avoided seeing A Dog’s Purpose because of that, know that the video was faked, and all animals on set were treated with kindness and respect.

Now, controversy aside, A Dog’s Purpose is the type of movie that’s hard to categorize in terms of an audience. It’s easiest to say it’s a family film, but I have to think it has a pretty heavy hitting tone for younger viewers. Sure there are cute puppy moments, which make you think of the perfect flick for family fun night, but then the dog dies, and then dies again, and again. And that’s not a spoiler, it’s actually the plot of the movie, which is based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron.

The film is about a dog trying to figure out, well, his purpose in living. What’s the reason he’s on this planet? And he (we’ll call him Bailey, as that’s his first given name and kind of the true identity he relates with throughout all his lives) begins to piece it together over the course of his many lives. Each chapter takes place roughly once a decade, beginning in the 60s, and each time the chapter wraps up with Bailey passing on for one reason or another.

Now it’s a sweet tale at times, but it’s also a tough pill to constantly swallow if you’ve ever lost a pet. And if you are watching this on family fun night…well, odds are it’ll just turn into family night, as there’s not really a lot of fun to be found. Now, it’s not a bad movie, but after a few reincarnations you start to be on edge, just waiting for this dog to be struck down to move the story along. I understand the idea of it all, and the hope that there’s more out there and that when an animal we love passes on, they simply go on to a new adventure…but it’s harsh to watch a dog die ad nauseam, even if he does come right back to life on some level. It’d be like just watching the last 15 minutes of Marley & Me on repeat for 90 minutes.

The main difference is that Marley & Me was the story of one family and their dog growing up with them. You learn to love Marley and really feel the connection they share, which, in turn, causes an emotional connection to grow between them and the audience. Marley also doesn’t talk, which helps.

In A Dog’s Purpose, Josh Gad voices Bailey through all his lives as a narrator of sorts. He does a good job in the role; however, it’s a fine line to walk when you’re trying to write comedically for an animal that doesn’t understand basic concepts one minute, but uses other words at the same time.

At one point, Bailey’s first owner, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) is trying to get Bailey to poop to no avail. He’s doing this because Bailey has eaten one of his dad’s coins and he needs to get it back. Through narration, Bailey wonders what Ethan is trying to get him to do, as he can’t understand Ethan’s urgency or need to get him to do whatever it is Ethan needs him to do. He then says something along the lines of, “…but this is making me anxious, and when I get anxious I have to…” and he then proceeds to poop in the garden to Ethan’s delight.

So he doesn’t understand basic commands of Ethan telling him to go to the bathroom, but he can use and understands the word anxious? This likely won’t bother everyone, and some may see it as an odd gripe, but it’s something that’s hard not to notice when it keeps happening time and time again. When the school bus comes to pick up Ethan, Bailey calls it a “big yellow box” type thing that takes him away every day. So again, he’s fluent in colours, sizes and what a box is, but not a school bus? Even though not long after he mentions their car…it’s just a slippery track that’s best left avoided. If you’re going to have the dog talk via thoughts, just have him talk via thoughts. There’s no need to try and force a cute moment by having him try and decipher what certain things may be by using descriptive words that are just as illogical for him to know the meaning of.

As a whole, the stories told throughout the four lives Bailey lives are nice enough; however, there’s definitely some manipulative filmmaking going on here through music and dialogue to tug at the heartstrings. There are natural, heartfelt emotional connections in films, and then there are “Oh, this line will definitely make them cry,” storytelling, and A Dog’s Purpose is ripe with the latter. As I mentioned, you get to the point where you’re just waiting to see how the current incarnation of Bailey will kick the bucket, and of course it’s sad…it’s a dog dying! But it lacks the resonating emotional connection of a film like Marley & Me that sticks with you almost a decade after seeing it.

So, what are some things we can put in the plus column for A Dog’s Purpose? Well, from an acting standpoint, not at all. The actors involved give it their all, but it really comes down to the dogs in the movie, and they’re fantastic. If you’re a dog lover, watching these dogs steal the spotlight from their human counterparts time and time again, seeing them do various tricks, and tell their individual stories (they’re all voiced by Gad; however, there are four different breeds of dogs used over the course of the movie) may be worth suffering through the more melancholy moments for.

If you’re a dog lover, I’d say give the movie a shot. The way the story is told may be emotionally manipulative, but its overall message and themes may give solace to some, which is never a bad thing. As a whole though, it’s an average movie that doesn’t really offer anything of substance that hasn’t been handled better before. But if there’s one thing the endless “Awww”’s that cat videos on the internet have proven, it’s that sometimes being cute is enough, and A Dog’s Purpose definitely has a lot of that going for it.

The audio and picture transfer of the film to Blu-ray looks great. The film is sharp, and bright. Each decade has its own distinct feel, and it comes through beautifully with the rich colour palette used here. The audio is also top notch, with music, dialogue and sound effects all working together in harmony to help create a great audio counterpart to the visuals.

The special features, while sparse, will entertain those who enjoyed the movie for a brief while once it’s complete.

Lights, Camera, Woof! – First up we’ve got a feature that comes in at just under nine minutes in length, and sees the viewer showed around the set by Roxy, one of the dog extras used later in the film. She explains to viewers how the film is made, who some of the cast and crew are, and some of the hijinks that took place on set. It’s all done in a fun, yet somewhat informative way that kids and adults can both enjoy for what it is.

A Writer’s Purpose – In this five-minute featurette we’re introduced to two of the writers of the film, W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon. Cameron also wrote the book that the movie is based on, and we learn where the inspiration came from, their love of dogs, and his thoughts on the success of the novel.

There are also some deleted scenes and outtakes which some may find entertaining.

Universal Pictures Presents A Dog’s Purpose. Directed By: Lass Hallstrom. Written By: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky. Based on the Novel by: W. Bruce Cameron. Starring: Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, Bryce Gheisar, K.J. Apa, Juliet Rylance, John Ortiz, Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Running time: 100 Minutes. Rating: PG. Released on Blu-ray: May 2, 2017.

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