My guide dog Roja and I watched a screening of ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ before that controversial video was released. Here’s what we thought of the movie.
The message of the recently released film A Dog’s Purpose is clear: there is an unquestionable, magical bond between humans and animals.
Unfortunately, the handling of the animals in the film has been in question. In case you’ve been on a media hiatus for a few weeks, here’s the scoop. A Dog’s Purpose received a lot of negative attention two weeks prior to its release. TMZ posted a leaked cell phone video in which Hercules, the German shepherd who portrayed Ellie the police dog, appears to be pushed into a pool during the filming of a scene. The video went viral, petitions were made, boycotts demanded, screenings of A Dog’s Purpose cancelled.
W. Bruce Cameron, author of the 2010 best-selling novel by the same title and co-screenwriter of the film, was disturbed by the leaked video, as were many people who worked on the movie, including Josh Gad, who lends his voice to the film, and Director Lasse Hallström, who’s helmed a number of award-winning films, including Cider House Rules, Chocolat as well as My Life as a Dog. However, after thoroughly reviewing the full footage from which the leaked video excerpt was made, producer Gavin Polone believes that Hercules was neither frightened nor harmed. After author/co-screenwriter Cameron saw the unedited footage for himself, he stated in a Facebook post: “The written commentary accompanying the edited video mischaracterizes what happened. The dog was not terrified and not thrown in the water — I’ve seen footage of Hercules earlier that day joyfully jumping in the pool. And Dennis Quaid, one of the film’s stars, said in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that every animal on set was “treated with the greatest respect.”
On January 19, TMZ posted a video of Hercules happily playing with a ball and reported that “Studio sources tell us they’ve looked at all the footage and say producers blocked out a scene where the dog was supposed to enter the pool at a designated location. We’re told the dog rehearsed the scene and was fine, but then producers changed the point of entry and that’s when Hercules got upset.”
Before this conversation started swirling, my guide dog, Roja, and I had the opportunity to prescreen A Dog’s Purpose. Here’s what we thought of the film.
As a handler with a guide dog (Roja, whose purpose in life includes being my eyes), I know firsthand the magic of bonding with a dog. As a result, my expectations for this movie were high, and I have to say, A Dog’s Purpose did not disappoint.
Dog lovers, be advised. You will cry a minimum of four times during this movie, once for each reincarnated dog (five times if you include the last dog, Buddy). Sensitive viewers, you may cry more. If you’ve lost a pet recently, the three different death scenes might be difficult to watch.
The movie begins with puppies, which does the job of immediately hooking most moviegoers, but don’t get too attached to this first puppy (voiced by Josh Gad), as it is euthanized within seconds. I realize this sounds awful, but the lovable voice of Josh Gad reassures the viewer that all is well.
To balance out your emotions, though, you will also laugh a lot. There’s nothing like dog humor about itchy butts and licking faces to lighten the mood.
Joe Lederer / © Universal Pictures/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Walden Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
First, we meet Bailey, a golden retriever (though still the voice of Josh Gad) born into a puppy mill and then locked in a hot car, where he’s rescued by a young boy, Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). Bailey becomes attached to Ethan, who he pals around with as he grows from a boy into a young man. Besides the typical coming-of-age trials, Ethan is dealing with an alcoholic, angry father.
Set in a Midwest suburb in the 1960s (the Cuban Missile Crisis is mentioned), Bailey is with Ethan during all his pivotal moments — from his football championship to his first kiss to attacks from a jealous classmate — and it feels as if the pair will always be together. The previews all show Bailey dying and returning, so I don’t think this needs a spoiler alert: Bailey eventually dies (shocking, I know).
Then he is reincarnated as Ellie, a German shepherd police dog (also voiced by Josh Gad), who bonds with her handler and does amazing, intense work saving lives and fighting crime. As viewers, we definitely feel how much less Ellie is bonded to her new owner than Bailey was to Ethan.
Next Bailey becomes a little corgi named Tito, who has a pretty easy life with his owner. Tito seems to be able to read his owner’s mind whenever she’s in the mood for pizza or ice cream. But again, we don’t sense the deep bond that existed with Ethan, though Tito develops a special connection with a larger dog, Roxy. Their endearing relationship portrays the bond between two dogs and how lonely one feels when their companion passes away.
Joe Lederer / © Universal Pictures /DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Walden Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Finally, Bailey returns as a nameless, fluffy dog who is severely neglected and not bonded with his owner at all. He eventually finds his way to a familiar home and companion (portrayed by Dennis Quaid).
As in the novel, Bailey’s character vacillates between a loyal, thoughtful dog contemplating his purpose in life and the stereotypical dog hyperfocused on food and marking his territory. The writers are consistent in their portrayal of Bailey’s canine brain, showing how confused he gets when humans get mad at him for typical dog behavior, like getting into the garbage when left home alone. The film also does a phenomenal job showing how dogs can often detect things about people, from the faint smell of biscuits to impending danger, even when humans can’t.
Because of the feel-good, heartwarming nature of the story, A Dog’s Purpose sometimes hovers along that fine line between moving and cheesy and, in some scenes, even predictable. But the strong, overarching themes of being present and offering kindness when possible transcend throughout and legitimize the cheese factor.
Though this is a family-friendly movie with talking animals, parents should know that there are some intense scenes, including a fire with trapped people, a kidnapping scene in which there is a near-drowning and a gunshot with blood. It may not be suitable for viewers who are very young and/or sensitive.
Overall, this handler gives the movie two thumbs up.
And now for the canine review.
I love guiding Joy to the movies. With all the popcorn on the floor and her paying attention to the movie, I can quietly help clean up the theater. Other than the loud noises in this movie, I loved it!
That Bailey is one smart dog, and I’d sniff his butt any day. Honestly, it was like Bailey read the thoughts I’ve always had about humans: “Sometimes humans do things and we don’t understand why.” And that thing he said about it seeming hard to be a human… That’s what I think when I see a human in my family cry. I always go nuzzle against them, just like Bailey probably did for Ethan.
That Bailey is one smart dog, and I’d sniff his butt any day.
And the lessons Bailey learned are ones I’m just learning since this is my first life (at least, I think it is). These are lessons I never want to forget:
Do something kind for others whenever possible.
Lick one another.
And my favorite: chase your tail.
(I might also add: Become a service dog so you can go with your person everywhere and don’t have to be left in the garage like Bailey.)