Despite a strong opening and charming acting from human and canine alike, the middle portion of the film feels like filler. The acting is okay and the plot just about works but it does feel like some of the scenes are deliberately placed for tear-jerking moments. Tonally, the film is all over the shop, jumping from slapstick comedy to melodrama and back again. The sudden jump in mood makes the film feel disjointed which further hurts the overall effect of the film.
A large portion of the film is dedicated to Ethan and its here that the story really thrives and feels natural. Following his journey from a lonely 8 year old that befriends puppy Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) up to his teenage years as a popular American football player, the film flows, chopping and changing confidently between drama and comedy that just about gets the balance right. Toward the latter end of this journey with Ethan as he prepares himself for college, an event occurs that changes his life and shortly after this, its here that the cracks begin to appear.
Without giving too much away, the film’s main theme is around reincarnation and upon the dog passing away, Bailey winds up with the same memories and mind as before but a completely new identity and owner. Its here that the story begins to fall apart. The reincarnations occurs two or three times and each time it dilutes any sort of emotional attachment we might have with, not only the human owners, but also that specific breed and type of dog. Its here as well that the tone of the film changes drastically and its unclear what sort of film ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ wants to be. There’s moments where comedy takes centre stage and other times it wrestles that spot with serious drama. Unlike the early portion of the film that handles this well, the middle and latter parts of the film do not.
Speaking of which, ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ works best when it stay solely with Ethan and his family. As the time away from his family grows, any attachment we might feel with the new human owners quickly diminishes and instead the middle chunk of the film feels more like filler than meaningful character development time. Its here that we learn a Dog’s true purpose is to find its way back to its original owner no matter what. Despite the script showing Bailey loving and caring for his/her new owners, it doesn’t feel genuine when we know he longs to be back with Ethan. Due to this, any sort of compassion we might feel toward the human owners is almost non existent.
Its not all bad though, the ending almost makes up for the poor bulk of this film that can never quite make its mind up what sort of film it wants to be. Ironically, it could have worked had it been edited and scripted in such a way that it matched the tone of the first 45 minutes or so. There were too many reincarnations in my opinion and by the time Bailey is reunited, we’re left questioning what happens when this new dog passes away or even what he will do when Ethan passes away. These questions remain a mystery, opting instead for a heartwarming ending which leaves a fuzzy feeling that’s hard not to shed a tear to.
Overall, ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is a film unclear and unsure of its own ambitions. Despite a strong opening, the film doesn’t quite know how to handle its new owners – instead categorising them with a simple trait that defines them throughout, lending little room for characterisation. Its not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination but ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ is just like Bailey in the middle of the film – trapped in the wrong body and not quite sure of its purpose.