A Dog’s Purpose (Universal Pictures, PG)

Hallström expertly exploits just about every known trick to jerk your emotional heartstrings, while also providing breathing space with comic moments.

Imagine a Nicholas Sparks film where the central character is a dog with human-like thoughts (and human-like color vision), whose soul is born into a succession of different bodies, of varying breeds and both genders. This particular dog is lovable and loving, although also a bit rambunctious—but even when he breaks things or chews them up, you can’t ever be really mad at him because he’s just so gosh-darned sweet. That’s pretty much what you get with Lasse Hallström’s A Dog’s Purpose, which will appeal to people for whom the Lassie was just not sentimental enough, and will turn off anyone who finds its central conceit and relentlessly upbeat mood to be cloying.

The dog in question, voiced by Josh Gad, retains the same personality, memories, and even learned behaviors through multiple lifetimes. He contemplates mysteries such as, “What is the meaning of life?” and finally gives us the answer to the question implied by the title: “What is a dog’s purpose?” His first life (that we see) doesn’t go well: After he’s taken to the pound as a stray, we can infer he was put down. In his next life, he’s an adorable golden retriever who escapes from what appears to be a puppy mill, only to be scooped up by two shifty characters who leave him in a hot car (as in all the best melodramas, human characters are transparently good or bad, while the dogs are always good). He’s rescued by the mother (Julie Rylance) of an adorable little boy named Ethan (Bryce Gheisar), who names him Bailey. Boy and dog become best friends and inseparable companions, romping through an idyllic world (beautifully shot by cinematographer Terry Staley) that provides Ethan a refuge from his angry, alcoholic father (Luke Kirby).

Teenage Ethan (K.J. Apa) is a handsome football star with a beautiful girlfriend, Hannah (Britt Robertson), but Bailey’s still his best pal. When a prank by a jealous classmate goes awry and burns down the family home, Bailey, in true Lassie fashion, wakes up Ethan and his mom (dad having been banished for abusive behavior), and all make it out alive, although Ethan suffers an injury that ends his football career. It’s not the first time this dog saves someone’s life—although he/she is at least spared having to rescue Timmy from the old well.

The dog is next reborn as a female German Shepherd police dog partnered with a lonesome cop named Carlos (John Ortiz), followed by a Corgi taken in by a lonely college student named Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and a mutt abused by a couple of rednecks and finally dumped on the highway near the farm where grown-up Ethan (Dennis Quaid) now lives. Yep, it’s that kind of a movie, and the ending is just as sweet and sentimental as can be (the big spoiler is right there in the trailer).

And yet, it’s effective, as Hallström expertly exploits just about every known trick to jerk your emotional heartstrings, while also providing breathing space with comic moments (mostly predicated on the dog’s comic misunderstandings of human behavior). It’s a well-done film, and the question then becomes whether or not it will be to your taste. If you’re up for an overdose of crowning moments of heartwarming, then this is the film for you; if not, you’d best give it a wide berth. | Sarah Boslaugh

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