Bailey is an energetic and playful red retriever who loves nothing more than to make his owner—a young boy named Ethan—happy. They play fetch together. They sleep together. They even read the comics together.
But as they grow older, Bailey develops a condition that requires him to be euthanized. That’s OK, though, because in this make-believe world—the new movie A Dog’s Purpose (PG)—man’s best friend never dies. Dogs simply are reincarnated, and Bailey (voiced by Josh Gad) turns up in the next life as a police dog.
Based on the bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, A Dog’s Purpose has been embroiled in controversy ever since a behind-the-scenes, on-set video surfaced showing a frightened German shepherd being forced into rapidly flowing water.
The movie itself takes a very pro-pet stance and even has a powerful message about pet neglect. Yet it is its reincarnation theme—as well as a bit of violence and a few adult themes—that gave me pause.
So, is A Dog’s Purpose family-friendly? Let’s take a look.
If you look past the theological problems—that’s easier said than done—A Dog’s Purpose can be a fun film. That’s partially because a big chunk of the movie involves only Bailey and Ethan, a Calvin-and-Hobbes-type tandem that had me reminiscing about my childhood and my pets. It’s truly a funny film, and as a celebration of the joy of dogs, it succeeds.
The film contains no coarse language, with only a couple of examples each of “oh my gosh” and “butt.”
Finally, there is no sexuality, although parents need to be warned about one specific make-out scene (details below).
It’s not every weekend that a film aimed at children raises philosophical and theological questions, but A Dog’s Purpose does exactly that. That can be good in the right context, but A Dog’s Purpose promotes an unbiblical worldview without apology. In fact, each time I thought the reincarnation angle possibly could be ignored, it resurfaced.
Bailey dies at least four times in the movie, coming back with the same voice and the same memories, but in the body of different breeds. He labels his time with a devoted married couple “one of my best lives,” and after dying one more time, he somehow ends up back on Ethan’s farm—three or so decades after they were pals—and tries to convey to Ethan he’s the same dog.
“It’s me, Bailey!”
No, the word “reincarnation” isn’t in the film, but the message is so prevalent that few children will miss it. Reincarnation goes against Scripture, for both humans and pets. The Bible teaches that we die once, and only once (Hebrews 9:27, Matthew 25:46). And while a good case can be made that animals will be in heaven (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25), the Bible is silent on whether specific pets will be there.
The movie, though, has other problems for parents who will be taking children.
As a high schooler, Ethan comes home one night to find his alcoholic father in the yard physically threatening his mom. Ethan protects his mother and his father moves out of the house, but the uncomfortable nature of the confrontation had me asking: This film was aimed toward children?
Ethan also punches a schoolmate who makes fun of him for having an alcoholic father. That night, the boy sets Ethan’s house on fire in a scene that could scare little ones.
Later in the film, we see Bailey’s owners watching the 1980s-era soap opera Dynasty with two women fighting and clawing.
We see Bailey, as a police dog, help his owner catch a man who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl. Bailey is shot during the altercation and dies. (We see him bleed.)
A Dog’s Purpose includes several instances of kissing. Ethan and his girlfriend, Hannah, make out in a parked car for a few seconds before Bailey intervenes. They laugh. (Later, they also break up.)
Bailey gets a girlfriend and says, “It wasn’t long before we slept together.” (We see them literally sleeping.)
Bailey asks in the film’s opening scenes, “What is the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason?” and then spends the rest of the film searching for the answer. Of course, dogs (and all of creation) were made for God’s glory, but what does that mean for a dog? Here, A Dog’s Purpose flirts with the truth. Bailey decides that a dog’s purpose is to have fun, to lick the ones you love, and to save someone. I can’t argue with that. Dogs are one of God’s great creations, and them bringing us happiness certainly seems to be one of their God-given tasks.
The Verdict: Family-Friendly?
I would be uncomfortable taking my young children (ages 8 and 4) to A Dog’s Purpose, due partially to the reincarnation theme but also to the few scenes of violence and family break-up that seemed more appropriate for a PG-13 film. That said, for parents who wish to use movies to begin a discussion about other worldviews with their older children, this is a good one for that.
What does the Bible say about reincarnation? Should Ethan have hit his classmate? (Why or why not?) What prevented Ethan from marrying? (Was it a character flaw?) Did the fighting between Ethan’s parents make you uncomfortable? What does God think about animal abuse? How does animal abuse differ from the killing of animals to eat? How many benefits of dogs, to humans, can you name? What is the purpose of dogs? What is the meaning of life?
A Dog’s Purpose is rated PG for thematic elements and some peril.
Entertainment rating: 3.5 out of 5. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5.