The title and previews were a worry, but when I saw that this movie had been directed by Lasse Hallström I came to it with some confidence that it would not be overly mawkish. My Life As A Dog (1985), which is not really about a dog at all, and Salmon Fishing in The Yemen (2011) are stand-out examples of the Swedish filmmaker’s quirky, not to say unfashionably sentimental, oeuvre and his latest offering is no less amiable.
You don’t have to be a dog person to love it (if you’re not, that’s your problem, not mine), nor do you need to be an Einstein to work out that some poor mutt will die along the way, so you can psychologically prepare yourself for that lachrymose trial. In this case Hallström tracks the lives of four dogs (Bailey, Buddy, Tino and Ellie) through the reincarnated soul of one who links them all. Even more intriguing is the unchanging first-person narrative that accompanies each life. It is a device that has succeeded occasionally in literature (James Lever’s Me Cheeta being the gold standard), but on the screen the potential for soppiness is acute. It is evaded, however – despite Josh Gad’s voice-over tending to remain youthful well beyond the dogs’ puppy years – because the stories of the owners are strong and the characters identifiable. Classically book-ended by Ethan the boy with his red retriever and adult Ethan alone on his American Gothic farm, the common theme is companionship. It is as cheesy as it needs to be, but it has an edge, too, in the observations made of alcoholism, domestic dysfunction, cruelty and loneliness. Other creatures’ perceptions of the world around them are impossible to ascertain, so we project onto animals, particularly our pets, human attributes and values – it’s only natural, isn’t it? Which is at the heart, I think, of what Hallström is trying to tell us through doggy eyes. Be kind, be loving, be helpful – and live in the moment. It’s as good a message as any.