Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.27.17
If this film doesn’t tug at the ol’ heartstrings, you’ve no business calling yourself human.
W. Bruce Cameron’s 2010 novel spent just shy of a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and — if released back in the day, when movies hung around for more than two or three weeks — this big-screen adaptation likely would have done the same. Even so, it’s a welcome bright spot in the January doldrums dominated (as usual) by stinkers held over from the previous year.
|Ethan (Bruce Gheisar) and his new dog Bailey quickly become inseparable, the latter|
finding this boy — his boy — the perfect "guide" for how best to maneuver through a
world of people, and their confusing, often peculiar behavior.
That said, the book’s fans may be a bit surprised. Although Cameron worked on the screenplay — assisted by Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells and Maya Forbes — significant liberties have been taken with his original narrative. But that’s part of the book’s magic: The premise easily lends itself to manipulation, and as long as the crucial plot elements are retained — which they have been — the result is no less beguiling.
On top of which, Swedish director Lasse Hallström is precisely the right talent for this adaptation. Looking back over his glorious career, I see that he has helmed many films that continue to rank among my favorites: My Life As a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, up to the under-appreciated Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Hallström has a thoughtful, sensitive touch that ensures the successful delivery of poignant material, without slopping over into overly sentimental treacle.
Make no mistake: His new film is boldly, unapologetically manipulative. But Hallström’s handling is so gentle, and the premise so irresistible, that we forgive such calculation.
On top of which, A Dog’s Purpose also benefits from sensational narrative work by Josh Gad, who voices the canine protagonist throughout its many lives. An entire generation will forever remember Gad as the voice of Olaf the snowman, from Frozen, but — as this film demonstrates anew — his expressive talents are so much greater than that one role.
The wrong voice, the slightest false line reading, could have ruined everything, but Gad never misses an emotional note. He imbues this canine character with just the right blend of playfulness, confusion (over “weird” human behavior), instinctive devotion, and the sense of wonder that belongs solely to trusting, innocent beings.
Cameron’s core premise — the story’s gimmick — is that a single canine soul endures through a series of dog bodies, remembering the experiences from each of its lives. All the while, it wonders why it has been graced with a place in our world, and — as the title suggests — what its purpose might be.
The first round is abruptly, shatteringly brief: Hallström signaling, right from the start, that this tail-wagging tale won’t be all sweetness and light. The next round initially seems similarly dire, until unexpected rescue: Thus, 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Bryce Gheisar) becomes the owner of a rambunctious Golden Retriever puppy. Ethan’s mother (Juliet Rylance) couldn’t be happier; his tightly wound father (Luke Kirby) ... not so much.