Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
1 Peter 4:9-10
The author of 1 Peter was addressing, of course, humans, but his admonition to serve is certainly exemplified by the canine hero/ine in director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel. I don’t know all the facts of the controversy over the alleged mistreatment of a dog during the making of the film, but I don’t think that the maker of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story would have allowed this had he known. These two films were helmed by a man who clearly loves “man’s best friend.”
My only qualm is the acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation, but this is the link connecting all the dogs in the film, so for the sake of the story, I went along with the concept. As a film that demonstrates love and loss, loyalty and service, this will serve as a good family outing.
The film begins with Bailey philosophizing about the meaning of life. “Are we here for a reason?” the dog (voice of Josh Gad,) asks. (All the sequences are narrated by Bailey.) At first Bailey is
a cuddly golden retriever puppy that 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) find almost prostrate with heat in a locked car. (That they break the window and take the dog home without any interchange with the car’s negligent owner might require some parental explanation to young viewers, because the film offers none, but hey, this is a movie.)
Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby) is dubious at first about keeping the dog, but gives in. There follows a series of events through the next ten years that includes Bailey’s love for retrieving a deflated football for Ethan; the dog’s nudging teenaged Ethan into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), who soon loves the dog as much as Ethan does; the dashing of their plans to go off to college together; and the inevitable death of the old and sick Bailey at the vet’s office.
Next, Bailey reawakens as a German Shepherd pup named Ellie (quite a shock when the dog notices something is missing between his hind legs). Chosen for the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department, Ellie forms a close bond with her handler Carlos (John Ortiz). The dog empathizes with the lonely man, still not recovered apparently from the loss of his wife. Their relationship ends abruptly, with Ellie’s heroic act during a kidnaping. As a short-legged Corgi named Tino, the dog provides companionship for still another lonely person, female college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Tino also serves as an agent for romance for Maya and another African American student, also a dog owner.
Last of all, Bailey returns as Buddy, a lost mutt (now a mixture of Australian Shepherd and St. Bernard) who re-enters the life of the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Companionship and service are again themes because Ethan too is very lonely as a farmer who had given up his dreams of college and a life with Hannah due to a sad event in high school. Again, it is Bailey who brings Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) back together. When Buddie discovers that old flattened football in the barn, he makes his startled master aware of his identity.
Despite some improbabilities, I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will enjoy this film. It took me back to my childhood days when one of the heartaches growing out of my parents’ divorce was having to give up my pet chow Blackie, one of the joys of which had been for me to emerge from school at the end of the afternoon and find him patiently waiting to walk home with me, (No leash laws or fences in those more innocent days.) Back then my favorite film was Lassie, Come Home, which was to launch several TV series. The euthanasia of the aged Bailey was especially moving because I held Tigger, who had grown up with our children, in my arms while the vet injected the drug that would end his suffering and his life.
The film is often as funny as it is moving, thanks to the comments that Bailey makes. He is not all-knowing, his remarks coming from his limited understanding of human behavior. He doesn’t know what they do when they mysteriously go away, and when the teenaged Ethan and Hannah kiss in the car, he wonders at first if there is food in their mouths that they are sharing or fighting over.
As a tribute to the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, this is a film both adults and children can enjoy.
This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.