Movies about dogs are always excruciating for dog lovers. Even if nothing terrible happens, the anxiety that something might--ticking away minute by paw-scrabbling minute--is torture.
Nothing truly terrible happens in Lasse Hallström's mostly warm and fuzzy A Dog's Purpose, with the exception of a sequence in which a police dog commits an act of bravery that costs her her life. But even though Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) seems to have taken care to make sure A Dog's Purpose, based on W. Bruce Cameron's novel, isn't too harrowing for the tenderhearted, a behind-the-scenes drama has threatened to mar the pleasures of the film: after TMZ posted a disturbing tape showing an apparently terrified dog actor, a German shepherd named Hercules, being forced to perform a stunt, PETA called for a boycott.
It all starts charmingly enough. A golden retriever named Bailey--his cheerful, red rubber ball of a voice, heard in voice-over, provided by Josh Gad--becomes the best friend of Ethan (played as a boy by Bryce Gheisar and as a teenager by K.J. Apa) and lives a long, happy life. Then he dies, but there's no need to bring tissues: before we know it, he's reborn as the German shepherd pup who'll eventually become that heroic police dog. As the reincarnation merry-go-round whirls on, he restarts life as a beloved corgi who also lives to a blissful old age. After that, he reappears as a Saint Bernard--Australian shepherd mix who, after a young adulthood of being chained miserably in a yard (excruciating minutes alert!), finds his way to the ultimate happiness.
There--that wasn't so bad, was it? But all that reincarnating is hard work, and watching it unfold is a slog too. The best thing about A Dog's Purpose are the two humans who show up near the end. Peggy Lipton--the undercover-cop dream girl from The Mod Squad--appears, resplendently, as one man's long-lost love. The life she's lived in the interim has made her what she is, though she carries it as lightly as a moonbeam. Dennis Quaid is a taciturn farmer whose dreams were shattered long ago, and if that sounds like a cliché, reserve judgment until you see Quaid's face: his character has lost sight of the sun but also yearns for it, and it's those dual sine waves that have kept him going--you see it in the curve of his frown, but also in that of his eventual smile.
If the world had its priorities straight, there'd be a whole romantic movie built around Quaid and Lipton. We also wouldn't have to worry about on-set animal abuse. As the film's producers investigate the circumstances of that leaked video, at least there's also evidence of canine joy in A Dog's Purpose, in the form of movie-star mutts chasing their tails and fetching semideflated footballs. That part looks like fun--and when fun is involved, a dog's face doesn't lie.