A Dog’s Purpose is a most unlikely movie to be at the center of an international controversy.
The family-friendly film makes a fur-ball filled appeal directly to the hearts of families and dog lovers with its story of a dog’s spirit that reincarnates into the bodies of various adorable tail-waggers (all voiced by Josh Gad, who kids recognize as the voice of Olaf the snowman from Frozen).
But outrage found A Dog’s Purpose before its opening Friday, leaving parents and pet owners to make a decision about the PG-rated film: see it, avoid it or even boycott it.
“Families are looking for something to see in the theaters, especially with this terrible weather,” says Tara McNamara, entertainment correspondent for SocialMoms.com. “But people are going to have doubts about Dog’s Purpose. When I talk to dog lovers and parents, they immediately say, ‘That’s the movie with the leaked video scandal.’ “
Unsettling footage shot in 2015 on the movie’s set resurfaced last week on TMZ, a week and a half before the film’s release. It showed a German Shepherd named Hercules unwilling to shoot a water rescue scene, clawing to stay out of the pool as the trainer coerces the dog in. Later, the edited video shows Hercules’ head submerged below choppy water.
Everyone from Gad to director Lasse Hallström was shocked, calling the video “disturbing” on Twitter and demanding an investigation. Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for a Dog’s Purpose boycott, echoed by international petitions which sprang up on Change.org
Hercules, the dog at the center of controversy following the release of an 2015 set video, is shown on January 19, 2017. Amblin Entertainment
With the film in freefall and a Hollywood premiere canceled in the wake of the scandal, filmmakers countered. Producer and animal activist Gavin Polone, along with screenwriter and A Dog’s Purpose author W. Bruce Cameron, reviewed all the day’s raw video and concluded that the footage was misleading and didn’t reflect how Hercules or other dogs were treated on the set.
Cameron wrote in a defiant USA TODAY op-ed that his family had received death threats and “berserk rage,” but “I stand behind the movie and the message.”
The question remains whether families will see the movie. Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, says the damage was acute, given the timing just before the movie’s release. But he says Dog’s Purpose could be clawing back some ground and is tracking to open with $18 million, close to what was expected before the uproar.
Ticket site Fandango.com reports that A Dog’s Purpose is its top-selling movie for the upcoming weekend.
“I know people who are not going to see this movie,” says Bock. “But this is fluffy escapism and many operate with the idea that if you apologize, face the allegations head on, then all is forgiven.”
McNamara says Dog’s Purpose has another drawback: The reincarnation theme implies there are dog deaths. Audiences might be reluctant “to see a movie where they know a dog dies over and over again. None of my children wanted to go. One child who still hasn’t gotten over Marley & Me.”
She says her own resistance melted in an early screening which showed the film handles dog passings with deft touches and humor, “without being emotionally heavy handed.” She admits to being won over in the end by “this snuggler of a film.”
Critics have been less kind: Just 45% of them liked it at RottenTomatoes.com.
“But ultimately, it’s going to come down to one thing: Do you believe this video?” says McNamara. “Or do you believe the people who made this movie care and love dogs and wanted to honor that care and love on film?”