Tomoko had wanted to watch this, because she loves dogs. However she ended up being slightly disappointed, because she'd raised her expectations too high by reading reviews that called it a tear-jerker and a must-watch for dog lovers. Personally, though, I hadn't been expecting much. I liked it. The first half-hour's a bit boring, but it gains emotional weight after that.
Our hero is a reincarnating dog, voiced in a slightly offhand way by Josh Gad. The film establishes his circle of life early. He's still a puppy on the streets in 1950s America when the dog catchers find him. "It was such a short life."
He then gets reborn as Puppy #2 in the early 1960s and finds a boy called Ethan, who has a nice mum and a stiff-necked dad. This is the start of the fairly boring bit. For a while here, the narrative doesn't have much drama. Ethan loves his dog (Bailey), grows up and finds a girlfriend... and that's about it. Admittedly there's a tragedy unfolding in the background, as Ethan's dad fails professionally and goes through multiple phases of disintegration (depression, alcohol, etc.), but that might as well be happening on Mars for all Ethan and Bailey can do about it. There's also a silly scene with Dad inviting his boss for dinner that indulges in fairly dumb humour as if this were the Children's Film Foundation.
Eventually, though, the film finds some force. Ethan's got his future all planned out, but then a very bad thing happens. Ethan's plans all go in the dustbin and everyone splits up and is miserable. Bailey falls into dog depression and dies.
Bailey gets reborn, of course. He has other names, other lives and other owners. Sometimes these go well and sometimes they don't. "I'm thinking I'm ready. One of my best lives, really."
His last life that we see is, for a while, one of his worst. Some people shouldn't be allowed to own dogs. (That said, though, apparently the film's more child-friendly than the original novel. The film has a running gag about injections, which is mildly horrifying if you remember that he's probably been put to sleep at least twice. The novel, though, keeps having Bailey neutered.) Then, though, he finds... well, it's what we've been waiting for.
Tomoko was underwhelmed by the plot. She wanted Bailey to stay with SPOILER until he died, which in fairness happens in the novel. Personally, though, I think the film's nature makes it anti-plotting, at least as Hollywood understands it. Campbell and McKee don't apply. Bailey really is just a dog. He loves his owners, but he's usually just a four-legged observer who wants to chase balls and play. He's capable of wondering about the meaning of his life and about a dog's purpose (c.f. the title), but the film's emotional weight doesn't come from traditionally structured drama, but instead from our empathy with lives lived to the end and changed irrevocably by tragedies that never get unhappened.
I also enjoyed our glimpses into Bailey's psychology. "I was sad for the cat. Obviously he wanted to be a dog." Sometimes he's waiting in exasperation for silly humans to realise something, but just as often his thoughts will have a strong effect on us because he's completely failed to understand what's happening. "Now I'm supposed to walk home? That doesn't seem very fair."
Behind the scenes story: apparently there's a video of apparent animal abuse during production that was released and made the film controversial before it was even released. I haven't seen it myself, but I understand that this video was heavily edited and that people who've seen all the footage have all stated that the dog was neither harmed nor traumatised. (He was doing a stunt that he'd happily done several times before, but from a different starting spot.) I have no first-hand information on any of this, though. I'm just passing on what I've heard and I might be wrong.
It's a good film, I think. You could do a lot worse than one-third bland + two-thirds good. It does manage to stir emotions, even if that's hardly surprising with repeated deaths of a lovable and sometimes funny protagonist dog. (He gets his best jokes as a corgi. "Slow down, slow down! My legs are barely legs!") It's better than I'd expected.