With Or Without Controversy, 'A Dog's Purpose' Falters In Reviews

The unabashed tearjerker wasn't going to win over everyone — even before a shocking leaked video surfaced.

Puppies, growing up, the too-short cycle of canine life: all elements of a classic tearjerker — and “A Dog’s Purpose,” out on Friday, incorporated them all.

Yet controversy erupted when a video leaked just over a week before the film’s release, calling into question the treatment of animals during filming. The clip, which appeared to show a frightened German Shepherd forcibly put into rushing water, led to outcry from PETA and actor Josh Gad, who voiced the canine stars. The film’s trainers responded by claiming the leaked video was misleading and “falsely edited,” and star Dennis Quaid reported that he saw no abuse of animals on set.

Due to the controversy, Universal Pictures canceled the film’s premiere and much of its promotional press. It remains to be seen just how the situation could hurt the film’s weekend box-office chances — the Los Angeles Times reports that on Thursday, estimates for its opening weekend hovered around $20 million, a 20 percent drop from earlier numbers. Plus, its Rotten Tomatoes rating at press time was a mere 30 percent.

Let’s see how the reviews stack up amid the controversy.

Universal Pictures

In a review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers admits that the film will get people crying, thanks to the many dog death scenes that allow one pup’s soul to be reincarnated in several animals, eventually landing in a mutt that finds his original owner (Quaid) once more. (Which begs the question — was his doggy soul only born when the younger version of Quaid’s character got him? Shouldn’t this soul be very, very old?) Yet Travers can’t get the image of the German Shepherd struggling in the water out of his head. “A manipulative script about dog reincarnation that whacks your emotions like a piñata – that’s forgivable. Not this,” he writes.

Variety’s Andrew Barker is quick to mention the leaked video in his review, writing that the film could work as “cinematic warm blanket” for audiences, offering sweet depictions of loyal pooches and nonpartisan morals. Still, he cautions — this only works with the audience’s goodwill, one that is currently in short supply. He muses on the affect of canine reincarnation on young viewers who’ve gone through the death of a beloved companion — “Imagine if they insisted on finding the reincarnation of their former pet?” — but ultimately decides that “viewed in a vacuum, it’s hard to fault the movie’s earnestness.”

Over at People, Tom Gliatto decides this “dumb, sweet, indulgently weepy” movie isn’t a doggone disaster after all — though he criticizes Gad’s “faux-naïf boyishness and puppyish pep” in his voice acting and admits that he’d seen a screening before the leaked video surfaced. “If you arrive at the movie with a mental image of Hercules slipping into that pool,” he concludes, “you might be less emotionally enthralled to watch the movie’s dog, in his incarnation as a German-Shepherd police dog, heroically swim through dangerous waters.”

Had “A Dog’s Purpose” come and gone without the leaked footage tainting the purely puppy goodness depicted on screen, it wouldn’t have left a scratch on reviewers’ consciences. Yet it looks like, for such a sweetly unchallenging film, its hard to separate fiction from surprise video footage.

“A Dog’s Purpose” is in theaters now.

Silly Beagles

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