A Dog’s Purpose. 2017. Amblin Entertainment. Directed by Lasse Hallström. USA
A Dog’s Purpose follows the lives, deaths, and resurrections of a dog until he reunites with the human companions from his favorite incarnation (when he is named Buddy). The point of view of the canine hero dominates, with voice-over (Josh Gad) expressing joy at being born, surprise at dying, and bewilderment at being born again. In theory, such a setup has the potential to express a canine point of view, but such expression is repeatedly undermined by an incomplete effort to construe a creaturely point of view. Voice-over by Buddy, who is unfailingly naïve, could bring out a canine view of the world or point out the inadequacies of human treatment of dogs, but it seldom does either. What could have been a picaresque satire about a dog who travels the human world and finds it baffling and absurd is rather about a dog who fails to make even elementary judgements, wondering things like “why is he chasing me?” That Buddy would be capable of formulating his own purpose seems unlikely throughout, so the film supplies an external one: Buddy exists to play cupid to the human companions from his best life.
Reincarnation is a problematic plot device here and killing a puppy in the opening minutes only to resurrect him feels like both a denial of animal death and an encouragement of consumerist replacement. The reincarnation device is also problematic as Buddy always comes back as a canine rather than becoming a tree or a human, for example. Souls only migrate within species apparently. The device is played for sexist laughs in one incarnation when Buddy is dismayed to see, literally, that he has become female. In some lives, the film depicts the darker fates that canine beings endure (euthanasia as a puppy, being chained outdoors all the time, being abandoned, being fatally shot while serving K9 duty) as well as the more conventional ones (disapproving dad, creaky bones in old age). Of course, DP also includes the requisite canine hijinks such as eating inappropriate objects; in this case a precious coin, which must then be retrieved upon passage. Presumably, alternating between happy and sad moments would help us to appreciate the happy ones, but instead it diminishes them all. Perhaps if the film granted Buddy more canine-centric joys, such as frolicking with other dogs, the happy would be more convincing. To create a “happy” ending, DP expects the audience to remember the fulfilling moments between a boy and his dog rather than the fact that the boy never visits from college but can return at a moment’s notice for the scene of euthanasia. Thus, it is somewhat surprising that the climax of the movie is about canine identity, as Buddy’s human companion, now grown, recognizes him as the Buddy of his youth. Perhaps we are meant to imagine their reunion as a second chance after the young man’s abandonment of both his dog and his romantic partner but this gets us no closer to learning exactly what is a dog’s purpose as far as a dog is concerned.
The release of A Dog’s Purpose coincided with the revelation of footage from the set that showed a distressed German Shepherd floundering in a pool. Such moments illustrate the hazards of animals performing in motion pictures but adding insult to injury is that the scene in the film, involving a police dog jumping into water to retrieve an adult male, is forced and unnatural. It might seem like a small point, but it suggests the extent to which the filmmakers neglected to consider a creaturely perspective. The scene, and many others, fail to reveal very much about a dog’s purpose. Despite its outward adoption of a canine perspective, A Dog’s Purpose falls back into garden variety anthropocentrism, emphasized throughout by the daffy interior monologue.
A final disappointing element of A Dog’s Purpose is that director Lasse Hallström gained international notice with My Life as a Dog (1985), in which Ingemar, a young adolescent boy ponders the fate of Laika: “And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in a Sputnik, and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and her brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt so good…. [s]he didn’t ask to go.” Unfortunately, the idea that dogs might exist for their own purposes, a basic insight about canine beings, eludes A Dog’s Purpose.
Hallström, L., Jönsson, Reidar. (1985). Criterion Collection, publisher. (2011). Mitt liv som hund (Director-approved Blu-ray special edition.; Blu-ray ed., Criterion collection; 178). New York, New York]: Criterion Collection.