I'm an unshakable dog lover, heart and soul – you wouldn't have to do much to get me wagging my metaphorical tail just by making a movie about pups being pups. So A Dog's Purpose had me at first bark. Then along came PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with disturbing news: A video clip, originally aired on TMZ, showed a German Shepherd resisting being forced into a water tank to film a rescue scene. The "alternative facts" claimed the animal wasn't coerced at all, just momentarily disoriented when the angle of the scene shifted. Watch the clip, if you can take it, and make your own decision.
In the spirit of due diligence, here's my review of the film itself. Directed by Lasse Hallström (My Life As a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) from a bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, A Dog's Purpose is preposterous and, at first, hard to resist. It concerns a retriever named Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) who gets a boy, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), to adopt him. Rather than watch his parents fight, the kid prefers the joys of letting Bailey do springboards off his back and play catch with a deflated football. Even when Ethan becomes a horny teenager (K.J. Apa, a.k.a. Archie in TV's new Riverdale), he still has time for good buddy – that is until he goes off to college and his pet dies of loneliness.
That's right, I said dies. Then Bailey is reborn as a girl – a German Shepherd named Ellie who works as a police dog and, after performing a water rescue (that scene I mentioned earlier), gets shot and killed on the job.
That's right, I said shot and killed. Next up, Bailey is a corgi helping a shy college girl (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) put some bite in her love life. At least the corgi gets to die of old age this time (cue the time-lapse montage).
That's right, I said die – again. And then reborn as Buddy, a scruffy mutt who gets chained up in a yard until he escapes and finds his way back to Ethan, now a lonely hermit played by Dennis Quaid who sees something in the mutt that reminds him of, you guessed it, Bailey. Only suckers will well up (OK, I did a few times). But even I can't get the clip out of my mind of that distressed German Shepherd, making it clear he didn't want to go into that effing water. A manipulative script about dog reincarnation that whacks your emotions like a piñata – that's forgivable. Not this. It shouldn't happen to a dog.