Friday, January 27, 2017

A Dog's Purpose: Sit and stay for this one!

A Dog's Purpose (2017) • View trailer 
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.

The growing bond between boy and dog — named Bailey — is depicted joyously, with droll sparkle supplied by cinematographer Terry Stacey’s ground-level, “puppy cam” shots. In time, Ethan matures into a popular high school football star (now played by KJ Apa) who nonetheless remains shy around girls. Bailey orchestrates a chance encounter with Hannah (Britt Robertson), and the inseparable boy/dog twosome becomes a boy/girl/dog threesome.

Ah, but things have deteriorated at Ethan’s home front. Crises erupt; tragedy takes a toll ... but, throughout, Bailey’s bond with Ethan remains absolute. And the canine soul wonders: Are these the golden years?

The question remains unanswered, as nature takes its course and Bailey eventually slides into another reality. This passage of time — from one canine life to another — is tracked cleverly via the dozens of pop songs that dot the soundtrack. The dog’s sojourn with Ethan begins in Kennedy-esque 1962, and we gracefully move through subsequent decades as cars, clothing, mannerisms and political focus change.

And as the years progress, Bailey returns as Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 first responder working with human partner Carlos (John Ortiz); Tino, a Corgi who becomes the best and only friend of a lonely college student (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, as Maya); and ... well, more to come.

Each new life teaches Bailey/Ellie/Tino/etc. more about people, and their peculiar traits (particularly the way they often lick each other’s noses). But the salient question remains: Why has this particularly canine soul been placed on Earth, experiencing — and remembering — each of these existences?

Hallström daringly allows the story’s tone to fluctuate between the wild extremes of physical comedy and grim pathos, and — truth be told — he occasionally oversteps. A slapstick dinner table encounter involving Ethan’s family and his father’s boss (and wife) is needlessly excessive, hearkening back to dumb 1960s Disney animal comedies, when every wayward dog was required to spill multiple cans of paint.

A few of the lesser supporting roles also could have used stronger actors; Logan Miller is particularly weak as Todd, one of Ethan’s high school peers, who has Bad News written all over him.

But such shortcomings are easily overlooked amid the stronger performances, and the core story’s appeal. Both Gheisar and Apa are excellent as Ethan, and Robertson couldn’t be better as the caring, sensitive Hannah: a winningly understated, fresh-faced, girl-next-door type.

Howell-Baptiste, in turn, is heartbreaking as the isolated, forlorn Maya.

Be on the lookout, as well, for Dennis Quaid — still getting maximum charm from his megawatt smile — and (of all people!) Peggy Lipton, well remembered from both Twin Peaks and The Mod Squad.

The compelling storyline also finds time for some crucial canine advocacy. Hallström, Cameron and their co-scripters insert sequences that depict the dangers of a dog left in a hot car; or chained and neglected in a back yard by people who’ve no business owning a dog in the first place.

(The latter remains one of my pet peeves: Dogs are pack animals, as this film repeatedly makes clear, and they regard us as part of their pack. Why get a dog, if you’ve no intention of spending time with it?)

(Ahem. Forgive the soapbox.)

The smorgasbord of pop tunes is complemented by another of composer Rachel Portman’s gentle, tender and finely tuned scores: again, an element that could have ruined the film, if overblown. But Portman — who has collaborated frequently with Hallström — is similarly attuned to just the right notes, at just the right moments.

The story builds to a genuinely heartwarming climax that does indeed reveal this particular canine soul’s purpose. That answer is clever and deeply emotional, and will strike a particularly strong, wouldn’t-that-be-nice chord with dog lovers. It’s the perfect way to conclude a thoroughly charming film, which I’ve no doubt will enjoy a long and happy afterlife on home video.

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