In "A Dog's Purpose," the process of life is experienced again and again by a soul-searching reincarnated canine. As sensitively directed by Lasse Hallström (2013's "Safe Haven
"), this decades-spanning, semi-anthological drama doesn't need to try to manipulate because its concept, by nature, is manipulative. And, boy, does it work. If there is something seemingly nihilistic about a family movie where our domesticated animal protagonist dies every half-hour, credit Hallström and screenwriters W. Bruce Cameron (adapting from his own novel), Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky with capturing the proper tone so that the revolving narrative never grows overbearing in its tearjerker ways. Make no mistake; the average viewer will still cry a minimum of four times, but the story is so involving and poignantly felt it's worth the emotional rollercoaster.
"Why am I here? What's the purpose?" wonders precocious pup Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) in his quieter, more introspective moments. Saved from a hot car by 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mom (Juliet Rylance), the red retriever is brought home and becomes a crucial part of their family. Through the ups and downs of his owners' livesan alcoholic father (Luke Kirby), a house fire, an injury which leads to an uncertain future, a teenage Ethan's (KJ Apa) romance with the sweet-natured Hannah (Britt Robertson)Bailey remains best of friends with Ethan. And, as the years pass, he grows tired, loses interest in running around, and gets sick. It's not the end for him, though. With each passing is a rebirth, as Bailey finds himself a brave (and female) K-9 police dog alongside lonely Chicago officer Carlos (John Ortiz); the beloved, short-legged corgi companion of shy college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste); and a neglected, then abandoned, St. Bernard who stumbles upon two cherished humans from his distant past.
It would be interesting to see an alternate cut of "A Dog's Purpose" without Josh Gad's voiceover. The jury is out on whether it would be more or less effective (it's plenty effective as it is, and Gad's delivery is wide-eyed and wonderful), but it is a testament to the simple strength of the visual storytelling that precious little, if anything, would be lost in translation were Bailey's thoughts not vocalized. From 1985's "My Life as a Dog" to 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" to 2009's "Hachi: A Dog's Tale," director Lasse Hallström brings a gentle yet profound touch to his existential observations on the passage of time and the beauty of life's intimate moments. He does so again with "A Dog's Purpose," shining a deep empathy on his trusty pooches and vulnerable humans alike. Each segment is successful in its own way, but the 1980s interlude with Maya is especially winning, leading toward a subtle, aching moment of transcendence between owner and pet. Performances, animal and otherwise, are pitch-perfect, while the path of the narrative leads to an unsuspectingly cathartic, if admittedly contrived, finale. By then, it scarcely matters. "A Dog's Purpose" is a small early gem of 2017.