The Unfettered Critic – March 2017

Recently a movie named A Dog’s Purpose flickered through the multiplexes. It hasn’t fared well. Critics across the country panned it. The New York Times’ reviewer got right to the point: “You can skip it because it’s clumsily manipulative dreck.”

We suspect that’s not the reaction the filmmakers hoped for. But then, they’re the ones who chose to produce a film about a dog that dies…and is reborn as a different dog…that dies. And yet another dog…that dies. How fun is that? The same dog spirit keeps returning to fulfill his (and sometimes her) purpose in life: rescuing people, playing matchmaker, and finally finding his way back to his original owner. It’s promoted as a comedy that’s meant to produce a heartfelt tear in the eyes of dog lovers. Personally, we can do without paying to see a repeatedly dying dog.

A Dog’s Purpose is just the latest entry in a perennial category of “feel good” movies about dogs. Some of the fictional pooches have managed to survive their cinematic experience. They’re often big, klutzy animals that cause mayhem in their human households, then eventually prove their worth. Think Beethoven (which at least has a cute opening credits sequence), and the truly dreadful Marmaduke. A subcategory in this genre, where the loveable dogs make us laugh and then, you know, die in the end, doesn’t fare much better. Marley & Me falls into this category, as does Turner and Hooch.

To be fair, making a good dog movie is difficult, because telling a good dog story is difficult. Dogs are ephemeral creatures. They die much too soon. Creating an honest, moving story without including moments that every dog lover dreads may be impossible. That’s the drama of life. Even in classic stories where the dog doesn’t die at the end, the writers apparently feel compelled to share painful moments. Some literary dogs suffer psychological traumas, such as a beloved master’s death, as in Greyfriars Bobby and Hachiko Waits. Or they encounter physical challenges as they struggle to find their way back home. Think Lassie Come Home and Lad A Dog. To be reunited with her beloved master, Lassie must: walk from Northern Scotland to Yorkshire, England; cross a raging river; battle vicious dogs; dispatch robbers; and suffer near-starvation. Lad, on the other hand, is lost on the crowded streets of Manhattan; bitten by a copperhead snake; and is the victim of a vicious attack by a much larger dog. Of the lot, Lassie Come Home ranks as our favorite, in both literary and cinematic form. Lad A Dog, although a grand book, became a mediocre film, despite the canine lead being very handsome!

We’ll skip discussing Old Yeller, a really tender story where a dog succumbs to rabies, and Cujo, a really creepy story where a dog succumbs to rabies.

In spite of all this, we hope to read and see more dog stories. Because we certainly love dogs. When you see us on the street, we’re usually in the company of our favorite four-legged friends.

“So why don’t you write one?” we’ve been asked. “You could put real heart into it.” We’ve considered it. But each time, we’ve come upon that inherent problem: dog stories have a tendency to break the heart. Our own dogs are in the twilight of their years. We know they won’t be in our lives much longer. We owe them a good story. A happy one. One that doesn’t end in misery or death.

We’re just not sure we can figure out how to do it. Maybe one day we’ll let you know.