A Dog's Purpose (2017) (Review)

How much should we let expectations impact our ultimate enjoyment of a film? As a film lover and blogger, it's a question that has always plagued my writing and thoughts, when the film ends and the film fades to black. Expectations are something I generally try to avoid partaking in but it is very often impossible, with bias perhaps seeping into all our judgments. I really hope it doesn't seep into my writing but I'm almost certain it does; it's inevitable, as hard as you may try to circumvent it. Because of my rock-bottom expectations for Lasse Hallstrom's A Dog's Purpose, is it the final outcome - a somewhat enjoyable experience - clouded by my initial skepticism? Or is it really an watchable film to begin? It's a very difficult line to balance.

A Dog's Purpose focuses on a dog whose life is shown from his birth to his death, followed by his various reincarnations. Coming back as a different dog breed each time, we follow each reincarnation through the eyes of the dog (all voiced by Josh Gad) and his various owners and their stories, ultimately searching for a dog's purpose in life. Although the title lays out a lot of the film's theme work and it is executed through decidedly rose-coloured, family-friendly and somewhat sanguine glasses, it took me by surprise how central this theme would transpire to be. Alongside Gad, Dennis Quaid, KJ Apa, Bryce Gheisar, Juliet Rylance, Peggy Lipton, Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, Luke Kirby and Logan Miller star in supporting roles throughout the film, as the various owners of the Bailey, Ellie, Tino and Buddy.

If you've seen the trailers for A Dog's Purpose, you've basically seen the entire feature-length. The element of surprise is almost non-existent, delivering an incredibly predictable and formulaic story. In between the two bookmarks exist a few shorter, snappy stories - intended to provide something with a little more bark; in particularly, one story possesses some genuine shocks, with the ability to crack even the hardest of hearts. Generally, these stories, no matter their flaws, move at a speedy enough pace and keep the film ticking over nicely, structurally benefiting the picture (although that first story could do with a little trim, maybe affording the time to stories two or three) with a concise pacing and approach. Even the opening and closing stories contain enough to be enjoyed and engaged with; they are never inspired or boundary-pushing but entertaining and warming nonetheless. They provide the light entertainment this film strives so nonchalantly for.

Shamelessly manipulative, the tears and the smiles and the emotion and the laughs do not feel earned in the slightest, phoned in only to ring the most out of its fluffy premise. It's melodramatic and tonally jarring, plastered with a sentimentality that cannot help but leave a sickly feeling when you leave the theatre. But it's a sweet sickening feeling, if such a thing exists, with some genuinely lovely moments that you cannot help but connect with. Moments of heartbreak and devastation are peppered throughout the piece and the certain stories push the thematic musing into darker territory than you expect, demonstrating something with a little more substance than you would like to give it credit for. Its five-person writing team (W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky) just about manage to string together a screenplay - but it lacks a genuineness, leaving most of the heavy-lifting to the adorable canines on display and some brief sparks of inspiration during the smaller stories. It's such a contradictory thing to say but despite recognising the manipulative nature of the film, you can still feel an emotion running throughout it - and even the hardest heart will feel a surge of emotion at times. In the right frame of mind, accepting what is going to be in front of you, you will find a disposable enjoyment in A Dog's Purpose - and animal-lovers in particular will lap it up.

Josh Gad brings his most naive, optimistic vocal performance as the four dogs the film trails, delivering a jolly performance that massively contrasts the moments where the film gets downright unpleasant and upsetting. Elsewhere though, he does a fine job of narrating the story and engaging audiences, with his work surpassing the quality of the material afforded. In supporting roles (after all, the dogs come first) spread out through the film, the rest of the human cast does a satisfying job. No one stands out for the right or wrong reasons, simply providing new backdrops for each reincarnation to explore. Lasse Hallstrom does a fulfilling job as director, discovering some terrific ways to link the story cohesively and avoid it feeling too fractured and episodic, while still managing to give each chapter its little flourishes. And, if we had an animal Academy Award equivalent, I'm sure we'd have a few four-legged nominees on our hands.

A Dog's Purpose is the film you expect only fractionally better, particularly if expectations are rock-bottom. It is simply light, fluffy popcorn entertainment, with a family-friendly model and predictable narrative path playing out on screen. Although manipulative to the highest degree, we lay witness to some raw, moving moments that will melt the hardest of hearts. It's far from a great film and it's likely you will have completely forgotten the film even exists within a week - but to pass a rainy weekend or with a couple of hours spare, A Dog's Purpose might just do the trick. It proves an interesting case to examine the impact of expectations on your eventually enjoyment in a film and I think A Dog's Purpose benefits from lowered expectations, ultimately providing some fine, disposable fun at the pictures. A Dog's Purpose panders for an emotional response but very much like a puppy, if it's already got your attention, you will lap it up. I was dragged into A Dog's Purpose but enjoyed considerably more than I care to admit.


Summary: A Dog's Purpose is manipulative and shameless in doing so but if your expectations are adjusted low enough, you'll be able to lap up the canine cuteness - it even threatens to melt the coldest of hearts, no matter how hard you try and resist.

What is the most prominent example of expectations either benefitting or hurting your enjoyment in a film?