Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director known for thought-provoking films such as “The Hundred Foot Journey,” “Chocolat,” “The Shipping News,” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” once again provides theater-goers with some food for thought in “A Dog’s Purpose.” Of course, the food tastes better out of the trash and bacon from under the table is just the best.
Josh Gad voices Bailey, a dog who really just wants to find his purpose in life. We hear the dog’s thoughts as he feels the warmth of his momma the first time and fights for milk with his puppy siblings. He’s happiest when he finally meets young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar). He has a boy! They do everything together and Bailey, with a lot of licking involved, finds that he feels fulfilled when he makes Ethan happy.
When Ethan (K.J. Apa) goes to high school and starts dating Hannah (Britt Robertson), Bailey can’t figure out the kissing thing. He wonders if Ethan is looking for food in her mouth but when Hannah proves to love Bailey as much as Ethan does, Bailey decides Ethan’s strange behavior is OK. Bailey becomes a big hero when he saves Ethan and his mom (Juliet Van Kampen) from a house fire.
Bailey wonders about his purpose again when Ethan takes off for college without him but by this time, Bailey is getting to be an old dog. When it’s time to put him down, Ethan comes back to be with him and Bailey is happy…until he wakes up as a different dog.
Trying to figure out what’s going on, Bailey (who is now a girl dog called Ellie) starts all over to discover his purpose. Now he’s a police dog that rescues people. When he gets shot in the line of duty, he comes back as yet another dog, and then another. Throughout his various “lives” Bailey continues to bring love to the lives of those he touches. One day, he catches a familiar scent and follows it straight back to Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Ethan lives alone, having never married, and Bailey works to first, let Ethan know it’s the same old Bailey although he looks different now, and second, to make Ethan happy again. Bailey finally finds his life purpose: to get his humans licking and loving.
My first reaction to the film was one of concern for kids. Bailey dies at least three times during the movie. I thought this might be confusing for kids seeing the film who have pets and might then expect their deceased pets to come back to them, reincarnated. Parents who take their kids to see the film would do well to have a conversation with them about this. Of course, as Catholics, we do not believe in reincarnation. We are each individual and unique, created by God. When we die, our soul enters the afterlife (heaven, hell, or purgatory) and we believe that we will be reunited with our bodies at the end times.
The more I thought about the film, however, the more it grew on me. We adults might think that kids are too young to think about their ultimate purpose in life but they’re not. Although the movie is from a dog’s perspective with lots of talk about smelling and licking, the voice-over narration could also be perceived as that of a child pondering the oddities of the adult world, observing and learning from all his or her experiences as they try to make sense of things. In the midst of all that, kids do wonder what their purpose is.
Don’t we all do this at some point in our lives? We all ponder questions such as: What am I meant to do with my life? Why did God put me here in this place at this time with my particular gifts? How is the Lord calling me to serve him with my life? When life seems complicated and we’re not sure of our purpose, it all really comes down to what Bailey discovered. It’s the same thing Jesus told us about the two greatest commandments: one—love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and two—love your neighbor as yourself.