A Dog’s Purpose: A Good Film Choice For Your Family

January 27, 2017

It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s January. What do you do with cooped-up kids who are driving you bonkers? The movies are always a reliable place to get the kids to sit still while you relax, but this time of year doesn’t offer many choices. A Dog’s Purpose had initially looked like the answer … until it wasn’t.

A Dog’s Purpose is a lovable mutt of movies: a mix of Homeward Bound and The Secret Life of Pets, letting the viewer hear what goes on in a dog’s head as he is reincarnated through many lives. Dogs, humor, life lessons, based on a wholesome bestseller—what else could a family could want in a family film? A lot, actually. A recent TMZ video, edited to imply animal cruelty, raised a lot of red flags. Families want to be sure the animals are treated well. Also, a film that has an animal dying again and again sounds like an emotional roller coaster—and perhaps not a ride we want our children on.

As an authority in family film, I’ve been interviewed quite a bit about this particular movie, including the video below with The Insider. As someone who can speak to the film side—and the family side of this controversy—I wanted to share my point of view and answer the questions you may have to help you decide if A Dog’s Purpose is a good choice for your family.

Ethan (BRYCE GHEISAR) plays with BAILEY in “A Dog’s Purpose.” Based on the beloved bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, the family film from director Lasse Hallström (“The Cider House Rules,” “Dear John,” “The 100-Foot Journey”) shares the soulful and surprising story of one devoted dog (voiced by Josh Gad) who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love.

Isn’t this the movie with the video showing animal cruelty to animals?

The intent of A Dog’s Purpose is to get humans to be good to dogs. That’s the point! It’s a snuggler of a film, it coats you in warmth and love, and was made specifically for the communities that love and support animals.

Last week, TMZ posted an edited video that made it appear one of the animal actors was being mistreated, forced to do a dangerous stunt in which he nearly drowned. The producers took a couple of days to launch an investigation and called shenanigans on a doctored video. Still, the movie now is tainted with ick.

First, you have to decide if you believe the producers, and I do. Not only does executive producer Gavin Polone credibly spell out how the video was doctored, and what really happened, in an article in The Hollywood Reporter, I know two people who have actually watched the unedited video. They back up Polone’s claim: the filmmakers scrap the shot when the dog, Hercules, didn’t want to jump in at that angle. When the turbulent water scene was shot, he willingly and happily jumped in. When the dog struggled underwater, many humans quickly reacted to get him to safety. As soon as Hercules got out of the pool, his tail was wagging and he was perfectly fine.

Then, there’s TMZ in general. It’s a website interested in getting pageviews. They have no journalistic integrity, they are an entertainment website whose bread and butter is trolling celebrities and Hollywood. They pay for revealing video clips and do not investigate or care how the video is obtained or if it’s accurate. The person who sold the video isn’t a whistle blower—if they were, they would have reported it immediately to a credible outlet; the seller’s motivations seems to be the money.

In our era of “fake news,” I personally feel that moviegoers inclined to see the film should go see the film. TMZ played us, they knew it would create a firestorm, which would result in more traffic for their site and viewers to their TV show—with no regard for the lives, the careers and reputations of the tens of thousands of people who made this film. The only way we can contribute to the end of fake news is to change our actions because of fake news.

PETA is continuing its boycott because it believes no animals should be used in movies, ever. While many believe PETA can be an unreasonable organization, that’s not an unreasonable point of view. If this controversy has made you realize you agree with that position, you probably don’t want to see this movie, regardless. However, you are missing out on some serious animal love. On the other hand, ….

Is this movie too sad?

No one would join me for a free screening of A Dog’s Purpose: not my children—ages 22, 15 and 6—and not my dog lover friends. Both groups had come to the same conclusion: they couldn’t deal with the emotions of watching a dog die, over and over again. That’s a legitimate concern. When my daughter was 5, I took her to see the first Disneynature documentary, Earth—and she was traumatized by all the animals that died in the making of that movie! Sure, it’s the circle of life, but watching a polar bear die left a scab that she’s not willing to reopen.

So, I packed an entire box of Kleenex and sat in the theater alone, ready to eat away my sadness with a tub of popcorn. Turns out, it was only a one-hankie—and I’m a crier. I’ll cry at anything. I once got a quaver in my voice talking about Prince George shaking Obama’s hand in a bathrobe.

The film sets up the premise of the dog’s death and rebirth immediately and without emotion, letting us know the dog died off camera before we really “know” him. So now, the audience is expecting it. Twice, the film provided the time to let the viewer feel the heft but quickly comes back with something funny. Ultimately, A Dog’s Purpose is a light film.

Additionally, it’s a great film for elementary school age children. Seeing situations through a dog’s eyes has two benefits:

  • It lets kids feel smart. They know what the dog doesn’t, and they internally recognize that. It almost puts them in a teacher’s mode—when we teach others, it reinforces the lesson.
  • It also teaches kids right and wrong behaviors—whether it’s how to treat animals or other people—very simply. Since the dog’s grasp of human behavior is limited, and we’re seeing what he’s seeing, the film is mostly devoid of complicated nuances. Everything that happens is clear: bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and if you get sweaty, you must be in love.

That simplicity is a turn-off for movie critics, but the truth is, if you love dogs, you’ll love A Dog’s Purpose. If your kids need to be reminded to pay more attention to their pet, this is your movie. But also be warned: if your kids have been begging you to get them a dog, this movie will make you cave. And that is the true purpose of A Dog’s Purpose.

And I also spoke with HLN about the film:

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