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.
This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.
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