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Film / A Dog's Purpose

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"If I can get you licking and loving, I have my purpose."
The Aesop of Dogs

A Dog's Purpose is a 2017 film based on W. Bruce Cameron's 2010 novel of the same name, produced by Universal and Amblin Entertainment.

A dog discovers, after his short life as a stray, that he's been reborn into a new life. His second is much longer and more meaningful: a full life with a family and a special bond with the boy, Ethan. That's not the end of his journey, however, and as it happens again and again, he wonders: what's his purpose for being here?

The film was directed by Lasse Hallström, and starred Dennis Quaid as Ethan and Josh Gad as the voice of the main character (for the sake of clarity, he's referred to as "Bailey" here, as that's the name he has the longest and identifies most as).

A sequel called A Dog's Journey (the same name as the novel) premiered in May 2019 with Quaid and Gad reprising their roles. As in the novel, A Dog's Journey focuses on Bailey finding a new purpose: taking care of Ethan's granddaughter CJ (Kathryn Prescott).

Previews: Trailer

This film and its sequel provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Ethan's father. Even before he became a drunk he was clearly a very stern type of parent, and while he never outright hits Ethan or his mother, he gets rough enough that Ethan and Bailey leap in to defend her and order him out of the house.
    • The girl Ellie rescues was kidnapped by her abusive father.
    • CJ's mother Gloria is the emotionally abusive kind of parent, as well as not treating Molly right due to her repulsion of dogs.
    • As often happens with the cycle of abuse, Gloria's mother is mentioned as even being worse then she was, beating Gloria with gardening tools, leaving her daughter alone for long periods of time when she was a child, and breaking her arm at the age of eight.
  • Actor Allusion: In the Japanese dub of A Dog's Journey, Gloria is voiced by Romi Park, who already voiced another, even worse abusive mother before.
  • Adaptational Species Change:
    • Buddy in the book A Dog's Purpose is a Labrador Retriever. Buddy in the film is a St. Bernard/Australian Shepherd mix.
    • Molly in the book A Dog's Journey is a poodle mix. In the movie, she's a beagle. Max is a Chihuahua-Yorkie mix in the book, but he's a straight-up Yorkie in the movie.
  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • In the film, his first life is particularly short. The film version just shows him playing with his littermates as a stray and then being put in an animal control van before fading out, while in the book his first life lasted a whole 54 pages: he was a stray, found by humans, and raised in a place he called "the Yard" with dozens of other dogs, and named "Toby". There was some detail about his life there, and he learned how to open gates, which would help him in his later lives. The Yard was shut down due to too many dogs in what they considered inhumane conditions, and he was put to sleep.
    • The film ends perhaps a year or two at most after Bailey has reunited with Ethan as a different dog. In the book, Bailey and Ethan live together for many years until Ethan passes away.
    • In the second book, CJ spends some time being homeless in California after running away from Gloria. This event is simply changed to the car accident which kills Molly. His last life as Toby the second is also completely absent.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The film covers Bailey's lives mostly as they appear in the book, but it adds a completely new life between his lives as Ellie and Buddy: Tino the Corgi, owned by a lonely student named Maya.
  • Afraid of Needles:
    • He mentions this a few times throughout the film, presumably because he was euthanized as a puppy in his first life as a stray.
      As Tino: "What's with these white-coat people sticking me with sharp things?"
    • As Ellie, while dying from a gunshot wound:
      "I always hated getting shots. This was definitely the worst shot I ever got."
  • Age Cut: Young CJ sits down to play the guitar. . . suddenly it's a teenage CJ.
  • The Alcoholic: Ethan's father slowly but surely becomes one.
    • Gloria is one too, though she gets her act together by the film's conclusion.
  • Babies Ever After:
    • Maya and Al end up having three kids.
    • CJ has her baby during the montage that concludes the second film.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Gloria's already been working on getting her act together, but the birth of CJ's baby appears to put the finishing touches on it.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Not outright abuse, but every bad character in both films dislikes the incarnation of Bailey that is present. Even Barry who already has a dog.
  • Better with Non-Human Company: Downplayed with Maya. She doesn't hate people, but she's extremely shy and doesn't have any friends for most of college. However, she and her dog Tino are like two peas in a pod.
  • Big Friendly Dog: Big Dog the mastiff, from the movie A Dog's Journey, is a literal big friendly dog.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Every time an incarnation of Bailey dies, the screen fades out and then immediately fades back in to his next one.
    • During the montage that concludes the second film, CJ has her baby. A few frames later, Ethan passes away.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the film, two of Bailey's incarnations get this:
    • As Ellie the police dog, he saves a drowning girl, then saves his handler's life, but is shot in the process. His dying thoughts?
      "I need to rest. That life wasn't a lot of fun. I did a lot of good work, though."
    • As Tino the Corgi, he has a wonderful time, getting to be with his owner through college, marriage, and the birth of her children, who grow into their early teens before he passes on. But he becomes depressed after the death of his dog friend — like the other half of an elderly couple dying soon after the death of the first one — and never recovers. It's sad to see him go as well, but his dying thoughts are to fully acknowledge:
      "One of my best lives, really."
    • His Big Dog incarnation gets this too, as he fully acknowledges that his owner Joe is good to him and that he loves him, but it's not the same without CJ, especially after she passes by the gas station where he lives.
    • His Max incarnation dies soon after Ethan does. The final scene is of them being reunited in heaven (if you've read the Rainbow Bridge poem, it plays out exactly as described), implying that he won't be coming back anymore.
  • Bowdlerise: Some aspects were watered down because the film is more kid-friendly than the book. For example, sexual references are deleted and the Running Gag of the protagonist being neutered is changed to a Running Gag involving injections. Ellie saving a girl from a child Serial Killer is changed to Ellie saving a girl from her abusive father.
  • Canine Confusion: Maya gives Tino the corgi a lot of human food, including ice cream and pizza. The only bad thing that happens to him is that he gains weight from it even though he should've been sick or dead from all that.
  • Character Tic:
    • Spinning around and catching his tail in his mouth. When Hannah sees him do it as Buddy, she comments, "Didn't Bailey used to do that?", and between the trick where he jumps off Ethan's back, his tail-catching trick, and his reaction to the phrase "boss dog", it helps Ethan recognize who he is.
    • Max sits down and crosses his paws upon sniffing out cancer in Trent, just like Molly did. CJ doesn't yet recognize them as the same dog, but the gesture tips her off to the fact that Trent is sick.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Maya and Tino end up encountering Al, the classmate who had asked Maya if she wanted to join his study group, at the dog park with his own dog, which eventually leads to Maya and Al getting married and having a family.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • In addition to the examples that originally appeared in the book, in his film-specific life as Tino between Ellie and Buddy, he sees how his owner is sad when she is alone but becomes much happier once she finds someone, and so he uses this knowledge to help guide Ethan and Hannah back together as Buddy.
    • Ethan develops a trick with Bailey where he tosses the flip in the air and crouches on the ground, and Bailey jumps off his back to catch it in the air. Bailey does this as Buddy to help Ethan recognize that he's the same dog inside.
    • As Molly, he learns how to sniff out cancer. Two incarnations later as Max, he realizes that CJ's friend Trent is sick, promptly alerting both of them.
  • Composite Character: The film shortens Ellie's life and mixes her two handlers together. Jakob is given a Race Lift from white to Latino and renamed "Carlos". Maya in the book was Latina. Maya in the film is black and is a completely different character.
  • Crotch-Glance Sex Check: After Bailey reincarnates into a German Shepherd, he comments that "other things were missing" and looks at his underside to find out he's a female, much to his shock.
  • Death by Adaptation: Bailey lived a full life as the German Shepherd Ellie in the book, but in the film dies from a gunshot wound from a criminal Ellie helped to stop.
  • Death by Despair: Aside from old age, it seems that part of the reason Tino passes away soon after his friend Roxy does is that he's too depressed to go on.
    • It's also implied that his Max incarnation dies because Ethan has.
  • Demoted to Extra: Toby and his siblings are regulated to a very short intro sequence.
  • Department of Child Disservices:
    • Well, the pet version at least. An animal control officer comes to the house where Buddy has repeatedly been left outside in the cold. Kudos to whatever concerned neighbor called the cops, but the officer doesn't do anything more than give them a ticket. Buddy's bewilderment as to why she isn't taking him with her (because he remembers his life as a police dog), is wrenching.
    • In the second film, CJ threatens to tell a teacher (who would be mandated to report it to CPS) that Gloria leaves her alone all the time to go out unless she lets her keep Molly. Oddly, none of the neighbors, who would also be obligated to report it, have noticed either.
  • Desecrating the Dead: A heroic and naïve example. The family cat dies and is buried in the backyard, so Bailey (who doesn't know that the cat died) goes outside, digs the cat's corpse back up, and brings it in the house to show that he finally found the cat. This causes Elizabeth to scream at this sight, and Bailey mutters "My bad" before taking the body back outside.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: The close enough dog version of it, anyways.
    • Bailey passes away while being comforted by Ethan.
    • Ellie succumbs to her wounds while she's held in Carlos's lap.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Tino the Corgi becomes very sad after his dog friend Roxie dies and never recovers, passing away himself a few years later. This is very similar to what has been observed in elderly couples — that one dies within six months to a year afterwards. It's also Truth in Television, as people with more than one pet have sworn that one will be inconsolable when the other dies.
  • Domestic Abuse:
    • Ethan's father roughs up him and his mother enough for them to order him out of the house.
    • The girl Ellie rescues was kidnapped by her abusive father
    • It's implied that the male half of the couple that purchases Buddy ill-treats his girlfriend.
    • CJ's ex-boyfriend roughs her up when she refuses to get back together with him, then later runs her off the road, killing Molly in the process.
    • Her mother Gloria doesn't hit her, but is clearly neglectful and emotionally abusive to an extent.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Bailey gets very edgy when Ethan's drunken father shows up.
    • Nearly all incarnations of Bailey in the sequel pick up on someone who's no good—Buddy dislikes Gloria, Molly dislikes Gloria and Shane, and Max hates Barry—he even gets his dog to hate him!
  • Foreshadowing/Foreseeing My Death: Or perhaps a literal Chekhov's Gun. As Ellie, he is told to get used to the smell of a gun, which stings his nose. Guess how he dies later on.
    • In the second film, Shane angrily declares "I'm going to kill that dog!" after Molly bites him while trying to defend CJ. A few minutes later, he runs CJ off the road, indeed killing poor Molly.
  • Freudian Excuse: Gloria's behavior can be chalked up to her own abusive childhood, and in particular, her hatred of dogs is because her own mother had a fat little lap dog who would just sit there and yap all day acting smug while Gloria was forced to do chores all day long.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Big Dog is the only incarnation of Bailey that we don't see die onscreen—he simply goes off into the woods as the scene fades out.
  • Heroic Dog:
    • As Bailey, he saves Ethan and his mother from a house fire. For an added bonus, he catches the jerk who set it.
    • As Ellie, he saves a young girl who's been kidnapped by her abusive father and pushed into a river, then saves his handler from being shot by the kidnapper.
    • As Buddy, he saves CJ from being trampled by a horse—pulling her away and barking to alert her grandparents.
    • As Molly, he saves CJ from being attacked by Shane by biting Shane on the leg.
    • As Max, he alerts Trent to his cancer.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: CJ's boyfriend Barry is made out to be a jerk because of his complaining about Max. But she got the dog without even asking him about it or discussing it with him and the dog almost immediately sets about terrorizing him—chewing up his things, peeing on them, etc. He had every right to be annoyed.
  • Karma Houdini: Shane gets CJ busted at a drug party, attacks her, and runs her off the road, killing Molly, and simply drives off and is presumably never caught.
    • Gloria in the books gets to live to a ripe old age, implied to be in her nineties, despite abusing her daughter her entire life. The only real comeuppance she receives is getting Alzheimer's, but even then it's hardly a punishment considering she then can't even remember she's ever done anything wrong, and remains unrepentant about her abuse until her dying day.
  • Lighter and Softer:
    • in the book Todd is a much clearer example of Kids Are Cruel whose always likes setting fires and tried to kill Bailey for fun.
    • in the film the gun-wielding child abductor that Carlos/Jacob and Ellie pursue is a divorced father who took his kid. In the book he is implied to be a pedophile and a serial killer based on a line about the area being searched where he dumped the last body.
    • The A Dog's Journey book involves CJ trying to commit suicide at age twenty-five, permanently damaging her kidneys, and becoming infertile as a result. She also gives up on her dream to be an actress, instead becoming a psychologist. Her mother Gloria also remains unrepentant about her abuse towards CJ her entire life, even accusing her of "stealing her money" at the end of her life despite CJ having supported her for the past fifteen years. The movie outright removes a lot of these elements or changes them, including softening Gloria's character and eventually making her a likable person who tries to reconnect with CJ.
  • The Lost Lenore: Carlos' wife, and Roxie, whose death depresses Tino so much that he stops enjoying life and passes away himself several years later.
  • Manly Tears:
    • Carlos, as he cradles the mortally wounded Ellie:
      "You're going to be okay! You're a good dog! (tearfully) You're a GOOD dog!"
    • Ethan, as Bailey passes away yet again.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Downplayed with Tino and Roxie. The lifespan between small and large dog breeds tends to differ by several years.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The decades — 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's — the vignettes take place in are well-represented by the cars, clothing, and hairstyles.
  • Nutritional Nightmare: In the first film, it's implied that Tino's health problems are the result of Maya feeding him junk food.
    • Big Dog's diet isn't any better, as Joe is consistently seen feeding him things that dogs shouldn't be eating. (Though he simply dies from old age, not this)
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Tino the corgi usually loves eating pizza, ice cream, and other human foods. In his old age, he suddenly stops accepting pizza due to dying from old age. Maya seems to recognize the signs, and her voice cracks slightly when asking what he's really thinking about.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: To the owner of the store that Big Dog lives in, Big Dog is usually a calm, relaxed dog, not getting up much. But once he sees CJ, he's happy and gets up to greet her. The owner of the store remarks that Big Dog usually never gets up for anything else.
  • Race Lift:
    • Jakob (or Carlos as he is called) went from white to Latino because he is a Composite Character of book!Maya and book!Jakob.
    • Maya in the book was Latina, but in the film, she's black.
  • Reincarnation-Identifying Trait: Buddy tries to invoke this. He remembers all his lives and finds himself back with one of his previous owners, Ethan. Buddy tries to show Ethan that he's his childhood dog Bailey by doing the same tail trick Bailey did, but it takes a while for Ethan to understand its anything but a coincidence.
    • CJ recognizes that Max sits down the exact same way Molly did whenever she smelled cancer cells, although it's not until much later that she realizes that they're the same dog.
  • Romantic False Lead: Shane when CJ and Trent are teenagers, Liesl and Barry when they're adults. True to form, they're jerkassess—Shane gets CJ arrested and almost kills her, Barry. . .actually doesn't do anything wrong except not want another dog around and make a few snide comments about CJ's non-existent musical career, and Liesl dumps Trent after he's diagnosed with cancer.
  • Running Gag:
    • Bailey's Corgi incarnation Tino and his owner develop a game where she asks him, "Do you know what I'm thinking?" He responds, always correctly, with some food item, "Pizza", "Ice cream", etc. It becomes a Tearjerker when she asks him this for what turns out to be the last time and he responds:
      "I'm thinking... I'm ready."
    • Bailey hates getting needles at the vet.
  • Sad-Times Montage:
    • Tino after the death of his dog friend, showing him sadly sitting by the window, looking for her, while the seasons pass and the children grow in the background.
    • Buddy, continually left outside in the cold, confused as to why his owner doesn't play with him or take him anywhere.
    • Big Dog sitting outside the gas station waiting for CJ to come back.
  • Shipping Torpedo: After realizing Trent and CJ have feelings for each other, Max sabotages her and Barry's relationship.
  • Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying
    • A few gags are made on Tino having short, stubby legs. Corgis are actually pretty agile because they're herding dogs. They still can have difficulty with steps or jumping though.
    • While Corgis are good family dogs, they are not recommended to be around young children, as they tend to herd small kids and nip at their ankles. They're also incredibly barky without intense training.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ethan is still alive at the end of the first film. At the end of the second film, CJ, Trent, and even Gloria are all still alive.
  • Testes Test: Both female incarnations of Bailey look themselves over and realize that they're female when they notice that "something's missing".
  • Time-Shifted Actor:
    • Ethan Montgomery is portrayed by Bryce Gheisar as an eight-year-old, while his teenage self is portrayed by KJ Apa and his older self is portrayed by Dennis Quaid.
    • Hannah is portrayed by Britt Robertson as a teenager and the late Peggy Lipton as an adult.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The official trailer basically spells out most of the film's plot, including Buddy reuniting with an adult Ethan at the end, performing Bailey's Chekhov's Skill to let Ethan know he's the same dog.
  • Truth in Television:
    • One of Bailey's thoughts on football.
      "Everyone knows there's never been a game in the history of balls that can't be improved by having a dog in it."
    • Like most small dogs, a healthy Corgi can live 12 - 15 years. In contrast, big dogs tend to only survive 8 - 10 years at most. So Tino likely lived his full lifespan and, sadly, Roxie did too.
    • Maya seems to realize Tino doesn't have much longer when he refuses pizza. In many cases where a dog dies of old age, they'll gradually eat less and less — when they stop eating and drinking altogether, it's usually a sign that it's close to the end for them.