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'A Dog's Purpose' is a controversial tearjerker about canine reincarnation

The dog's real name is Hercules. He seems to be a German Shepherd. He plays a police dog named Ellie in Lasse Hallstrom's "A Dog's Purpose." TMZ showed an on-set video from the film's making of the dog being forced against his will by a trainer into a tank of violently roiling water. Hercules, in the video, clearly doesn't want to go into the tank.

You wouldn't either.

It became such an issue that Steven Spielberg's company Amblin' and others cancelled some of the premieres for the film which is, quite frankly, otherwise a perfectly acceptable family tearjerker about a talking dog reincarnated into four different canine identities over four different doggy breeds. PETA called for a movie boycott. God bless PETA but I honestly don't think it's necessary; the publicity was quite sufficient.

Hercules, we know now, is fine. Journalistic reports from the West Coast made it clear that after the undeniably disturbing video was shot and seen, the dog is as dry and happy as ever. I believe that. It's unlikely that anyone will play fast and loose again with the key figure in such a story.

Now let me tell you about a scene in classic world cinema that has haunted me for my entire moviegoing life. The movie is David Lean's 1948 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist." The great Robert Newton plays terrifying Bill Sikes.

In the murder scene, Sikes' dog Bull's-Eye is seen in terror trying to flee the horrible crime. He frantically scratches at the door to exit the room. In another scene, he is seen trembling in closeup terror of Sikes. I have, for my entire life, wondered how Lean -- or the dog's trainer -- got that dog to simulate terror and fearful trembling so disturbingly. What on earth did they doto him? It's a great movie to be sure but everything else about the film -- including Alec Guinness' performance as Fagin -- takes a back seat to my thoughts about the dog. Yes, yes, I know PETA goes overboard again and again but I'm glad we live in the age of PETA and not the late 1940s.

Let me confess that as ridiculously manipulative and sentimental a family movie as "A Dog's Purpose" is, I'm a bit of a sucker for movies like it. Just show me all those furry, frisky puppies, adult Golden Retrievers, Corgis, German Shepherds, St. Bernards, whatever and and I'm close to putty in a movie's hands.

Anyone who has ever had a pet is likely to feel similarly -- at times, at least.

Animals are how we teach children and ourselves about mortality. Under ordinary circumstances, we last longer than they do. They're how kids discover death. For years, animals are warm and loving on the couch. And then they're gone.

Not in this movie. This is a tale of a reincarnated dog whose first and longest incarnation is as a beautiful Golden Retriever named Bailey, whose human master is Ethan (K.J. Apa, as an adult), a teen football player whose father is an alcoholic. The gimmick here is that Bailey narrates the whole film through all of his identities in Josh Gad's voice. The first thing we hear him ask in the voice-over is "what is the meaning of life?" The film is supposed to be his intermittently comic search for an answer, through all the butt-sniffing and frisking about.

In Bailey's next life, he's that German Shepherd police dog whose K-9 corps master is played by John Ortiz. Bailey the dog saves kidnapped girls from drowning and then dies in his master's grieving arms. He then spends another life as a Corgi and begins another as a St. Bernard who eventually makes his way to Dennis Quaid. I can't tell you more plot than that because that's the movie's narrative payoff. It's manipulative as can be but sweet.

In each life, our dog does what dogs usually do before their masters, but in different ways. As Ellie, the police dog with a brand new gender dies of a bullet wound.

I'd never dream of saying that a completely dry eye is impossible during the full length of "A Dog's Purpose" but, as I said, it's unlikely that anyone who has ever actually loved a pet will be unaffected (Or, for that matter, who has seen "Old Yeller.")

Whatever disturbance it causes younger kids, I think the film is, in all, a soft way to confront some of life's toughest facts -- that all creatures die, for instance, and that some human creatures aren't very nice. At the same time, here, is a film by  Hallstrom, a very good film director who is not going to pretend that life difficulties aren't what they are.

We first became acquainted with Hallstrom with "My Life as a Dog" and then settled in while one of our great movie humanists made "Chocolat," "The Shipping News," "The Cider House Rules," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen."

You can bet that everyone involved in this movie regrets that moment when Hercules, in that video, was forced into such terrifying water.

But movies are unreal things that, nevertheless, are created in very real worlds. And those real worlds are so often less than ideal. The truth is, we seldom know the details.

Whose reality isn't less than ideal?

This movie isn't, of course, to be undertaken by those who find such heaping qualities of sentimentality to be toxic. Digestive upheavals, for them, will be inevitable.

I think older kids can handle it fine. And for the rest of us the result is most likely going to be unavoidable wet-eyed reminders of dog love in "real" life.


"A Dog's Purpose"

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, K. J. Apa, the voice of Josh Gad.

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Rated: PG for thematic elements and imperiled dogs and people.

Running time: 120 minutes

The lowdown: The same dog lives four lifetimes and is reincarnated through four different breeds and owners.


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