Cuteness and unabashed sentimentality flow like drool from the mouth of an excited retriever in “A Dog’s Purpose,” director Lasse Hallström’s gently dramatic look at what it means to be man’s best friend — from the friend’s perspective. Adapted from the best-selling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, the film screams (barks?) novella instead, streamlining major changes of scenery and offering bite-size musings on reincarnation and doggie existentialism. But between Josh Gad’s charmingly earnest voice-over performance and more of the arthouse gloss that Hallström has drizzled on everything from “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” it’s a weepie that can be tough to resist.
The movie drew an outcry from animal rights activists last week after video surfaced of an on-set trainer pushing a German Shepherd into rushing water for a stunt sequence. Not that there’s much telling from the finished product, which preps younger and more sensitive viewers for Old Yeller heartache with opening quick hits of, say, a Gad-voiced pup nursing, growing, playing, and meeting a vague end. A subsequent rebirth lands our protagonist in red retriever’s fur and a ’60s heartland setting, with caring youngster Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) rescuing Bailey from dire straits and bringing him home.
As Ethan hits adolescence (and KJ Apa assumes the role), Bailey’s puzzled reads of his master freshen up familiar melodramatic elements: family dysfunction, a brush with tragedy, derailed life plans, star-crossed romance. Britt Robertson does nice work here as Ethan’s devoted, dog-adoring girlfriend.
After lulling us with beatific imagery of Bailey and the young sweethearts passing lazy, hazy summer days, Hallström makes an attention-grabbing switch to the film’s next act. Out with country farmland and carnival fairways, in your face with ’70s Chicago grit, as Bailey comes back as the faithful canine sidekick of a lonely city cop (John Ortiz). While this is the segment that stirred controversy, what’s onscreen is strictly the PG-lite version of crime drama, short on intensity and longer on clichés. It’s an intriguing change-up, though, more so than an ensuing look at Bailey’s comfy, contentedly idle time as corgi companion to a shy coed (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Both segments further the story’s intriguing, semi-episodic structure, in which Hallström adds character threads without sweating narrative balance.
No time for that, not when the director and Bailey have got to get back to AARP-age Ethan (Dennis Quaid) to play catch — or catch-up. Peggy Lipton also gets in on the reunion, in a nifty bit of casting. Together, they all serve up mushiness with no apologies — and an irrepressible wag of the tail.
★ ★ ½
A DOG’S PURPOSE
Directed by Lasse Hallström. Written by Cathryn Michon, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron. Starring Josh Gad, K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 120 minutes. PG (thematic elements, some peril).