******* SPOILER ALERT! *********
"What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason? Is there a point to any of this?" This movie begins by asking some of life’s biggest questions, which is no small undertaking in any medium, let alone one that is typically confined to a mere few hours, at best. Many people have and still do spend countless amounts of time trying to answer these very same questions (arguably to varying degrees of success), and we will—most assuredly—continue to seek answers moving forward. Though, in our quest to uncover our own purpose, have we ever considered our faithful canine companions?
"What is the meaning of life?"
Aside from knowing the love, understanding, and joy they bring us just by their presence alone, have you ever looked into those big, soft, trusting eyes and wondered why they are here? Or, better yet, have you ever stopped to wonder if they wonder why they are here, the same way we wonder that about ourselves? Never fear, “A Dog’s Purpose” is the movie to help you explore just that line of thinking. So, in a movie that seeks to tackle such large ideas, how well does the approach from all fours work?
More thorough film buffs than myself would probably have a thing or two to say about story continuity or clunkiness; perhaps some would find the overwhelming use of Lassie-esque canine hero-fantasies a bit too much or too hard of a sell—among them: the K9 dog of a cop who catches the bad guy, the family dog who saves the family from a burning house, a dog who helps their owner to find love. But, I contend the movie overall has a great feeling to it that would be lost if this was just a movie about a dog that mimicked our everyday life with our canine companions, as lovely as those days and lives are. I'm sure the intention of showing all of these epic situations was to, even if a bit drastically, highlight just how amazing dogs are and can be, and to remind us why we love them the way we do. And this movie, for me, certainly did accomplish that.
The story begins in the 1950s, as we listen to the dog describe how he feels after being born—not really understanding much, and full of wonder about just why he is where he is, and curious as to what he is. Shortly after hearing the dog wonder about life’s biggest questions, his life ends, only for him to be reborn as another, new, different puppy—a retriever named Toby.
Toby's memories of his previous first life are limited to impressions where he recognizes that his life felt very short and there wasn’t much to it. Though, importantly, as he continues through other lives as the movie continues, he will retain the memory of his previous lives. His newest form as Toby finds him in what appears to be a puppy mill, until he is able to escape from his mis-locked cage. He ambles from the mill as a newly liberated stray unsure of where he is or where he’s going, along the way frolicking happily in the street and dirt when he is suddenly picked up by a pair of garbage men. Deciding they might be able to make a few bucks selling him, the two take him in their truck and head off to lunch, or the bar, whilst leaving Toby locked in the sweltering cab with the windows up.
On the brink of total heat exhaustion, along come Ethan (Bryce Gheiser (who plays Ethan at age 8) and his mom (Juliet Rylance) who notice Toby's dire circumstances. With little hesitation, mom breaks the window, liberating Toby (go, mom!). Toby is then taken home with them and Ethan's cantankerous dad (Luke Kirby), while initially not wanting his son to keep Toby, eventually relents and Toby is renamed Bailey to officially become part of the family. Ethan and Bailey bond quickly their first summer together when they visit Ethan's grandparents (Gabrielle Rose and Michael Bofshever). It's during this visit Bailey comes to believe that Ethan is his purpose, and is why he is here.
From there, the next hour or so of the movie is a journey from childhood to adulthood for Ethan (played by K. J. Apa as a teenager into early adulthood, and as a later-in-life adult by Dennis Quaid, with Bailey at his side, influencing events and offering his own take on why Ethan exists, to what purpose. And while this portion of the film is more or less a typical all-American teenager coming-of-age movie for Ethan's character (dad becomes a struggling out-of-work alcoholic whose marriage is falling apart and he doesn't support Ethan; Ethan becomes a popular high school quarterback and continues to struggle with trying to respect his dad who, despite Ethan’s all-but-begging won’t attend any of Ethan’s games; Ethan then falls in love with Hannah (Britt Robertson) where after their senior year, they are going to go off to college on scholarship together but then something bad happens that prevents their plans from taking shape), it's Bailey and his dialogue and perspective all along the way that really make the movie special.
Director, Lasse Hallström, has done a wonderful job of employing straight-forward dialogue for Bailey that cuts through the layers of complications that humans tend to add to any given situation, and instead, highlights the beauty of the simple and obvious. (And while dogs don’t actually talk and this movie holds true to that, through Josh Gadd, who voices Bailey, we get to hear Bailey’s thoughts, which is what I am referring to as his "dialogue.") One of my favorite laugh-out-loud lines from Bailey—and there really were many for me—is after he's already noted that Hannah "smells like biscuits." He remarks on his observations of Ethan and Hannah always kissing, wondering "why is Ethan always looking for food in Hannah's mouth because he never finds anything" showing us sweetly this pup’s straight-forward understanding of the situation because he doesn't know what a kiss is or why people would do it if not to find food.
Or the line early on when Bailey triumphantly tells us that he's learned his name and shares that it’s "Bailey, Bailey, Bailey, Bailey" because that's how Ethan is always calling him, usually because he's trying to get Bailey to stop doing something. And just as endearing is the scene when Bailey is actually being yelled at and chased to drop something and to him, it's an exciting game of tag that has Ethan riled up with enthusiasm. It's in these scenes and the way the dog remarks on them where you realize after a beat that to a dog, this is exactly what it would seem is happening in these instances; and that is what makes this film so incredibly effective.
In addition to smart dialogue choices, the occasional use of a hand-held camera from lower angles offer us a view from the dog's perspective and serves to add an edge of authenticity and depth to the scenes where employed. As well, the use of distinct scene changes—in particular, in the instances of rebirth for the dog where the screen is momentarily completely whited out with bright light—are effective in providing the appropriate amount of time and energy for the viewer to “reset” along with the dog.
Ultimately, Bailey progresses through more lives and encounters in the decades after being "Bailey the retriever" and helps more owners much in the same way he did with Ethan, but Ethan forever remains on his mind. It's through these additional lives that his purpose continues to coalesce and solidify. And when fate finally brings he and Ethan together again, the movie's parting words from Bailey really say it all, and in that oh-so-effective Bailey way:
"Have fun, obviously. Whenever possible, find someone to save and save them. Lick the ones you love. Don't get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. Be. Here. Now. That's a dog's purpose."
May we all gather such wisdom from our own encounters in life and, hopefully, may we all learn to heed Bailey's words---be here, be in the moment, and be good---to yourself and each other. In-paws-ibly perfect ending, indeed!
Seattle Pup Magazine Editorial Note:
A controversial video regarding the training of dogs for this film was posted online earlier this year. For details and explanations regarding this video please review the following articles:
“American Humane Weighs in on ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ (Guest Column),” Variety, accessed October 24, 2017.
“Dennis Quaid Defends A Dog’s Purpose,” Time Magazine, accessed October 24, 2017.