A Dog's Purpose review – gooey-eyed fantasy with canine kissing

Lasse Hallström’s tale of a dog that keeps getting reincarnated is cutesy, creepy and icily manipulative

There are a couple of worrying moments in this sentimental film when a grown man appears to be leaning in to snog a dog. A guy is apparently on the verge of sucking face with a dog. It really does look as if a full-on, with-tongues game of interspecies tonsil hockey with a dog is on the cards. This is a fantasy canino-mance, based on the 2010 bestseller by W Bruce Cameron, and the dog itself keeps getting reincarnated: adorably, heartrendingly, karmically coming back as different dogs in different story segments – retriever, corgi, German shepherd etc – but always with the same cutesy off-camera voice provided by Josh Gad and the decreasingly endearing anthropomorphic gags as he understands utterly what’s going on, but with various canine-naïf exceptions on the subject of the owner’s sex life, like a creepy hyperactive child, and with a tendency to end a scene by reducing it to woofingly chaotic farce.

The dog starts his Zen journey by being called Bailey, best friend to a good kid with a troubled home life and an alcoholic dad. Then he becomes a police dog, then in the next life is owned by a lonely college student, then subjected to abusive neglect by a dysfunctional couple, then he brings emotional solace to a farmer. It’s a weird crossbreed of Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. Normally, I don’t mind being the hapless chew toy for a weepie animal film, but there is something so icily manipulative about a live-action non-animation film that cloyingly endows an animal with human characteristics and human piety about eternal life.

The movie’s ickiness factor is such that it’s no great surprise to see the controversial location footage that has appeared on TMZ.com, showing the scared German shepherd being forced into the water. That’s something that won’t make it into the DVD extras. But it’s impossible to watch without imagining Josh Gad’s squeaky voiceover, narrating the poor beast’s uncomprehending fear. That dog’s purpose was to entertain. Or else.

Lasse Hallström has perhaps been hired as director because of his 1985 film, My Life As a Dog, about a lonely kid passed from pillar to post, who poignantly imagines himself a dog. This creepy film is a de-evolutionary step from that, abolishing the existence of human kids and replacing them with this endlessly replicating, gooey-eyed undemanding dog.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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