In a December 1993 interview with David Letterman, Tom Hanks famously said that you should “never kill the dog” in a movie (the discussion is at minute 8:30 in the linked video). Hanks also joked that Jeffrey Katzenberg would drive by the Hanks household waving his fist and shouting “killing that dog cost us $49 million in box office.” Anyone who has watched Turner & Hooch knows why Hanks makes the joke. The dog’s death shatters what is otherwise a wonderful buddy comedy and shifts it into tragedy. We go in expecting 48 Hours with a dog and end up with Where the Red Fern Grows.
Killing the dog is a common trope and one that can alienate audiences if the audience had other expectations. While killing the dog may be a way to guarantee that an author wins a Newbury Award, it is also a way to guarantee that scarred children will create stand-up routines about the cruelty of the authors of children’s books. Killing the dog is a surefire way to alienate an audience…or is it?
I’ve been joking for some time now that John Wick was created on a dare. That dare was to create a movie that violated the “Hanks Rule” in a way that made audiences more interested in the film’s narrative than they would otherwise be. John Wick does just that. Instead of the death of the dog being the climactic moment, or moment of resolution for the film, the dog’s death is a part of the inciting incident. John Wick’s dog is murdered, so he goes out and kills the entire Russian mob in his city. The fact that John Wick can get away with such a blatantly manipulative pull on the heart-strings is one of the demonstrations of how genius the film is, but John Wick only kills the dog once.
In the book A Dog’s Purpose, and in the trailer for the film, the storytellers ask readers and audience members to experience a dog dying several times on the way to discovering what “purpose” the protagonist dog has.
The film’s premise is a heart wrenching concept. As someone who has had a couple of dogs in his life, I couldn’t watch the trailer for the film without weeping repeatedly. In my case, the dog in question was my wife’s dog of twenty-one years. The dog was only in my life for four years, but they were a glorious four years. She and I were immediate pack mates. We had a wonderful time, but she was an old dog and so the time was short. I still remember the day she died. I was going to be leaving to go to a conference and then to GenCon, so I would be gone for two weeks. On the day I was going to leave, Oreo woke my wife and me up and nuzzled our hands. She then had what appeared to be a stroke and died with a sigh. It’s hard to not anthropomorphize in those moments. It’s as if she knew I was leaving and wanted to make sure to say goodbye.
That’s what I thought of when I watched the trailer for A Dog’s Purpose, though I already knew the answer to the title. A dog’s purpose is to bring love and companionship and remind us to take care of our “pack.”
A Dog’s Purpose will be released in theaters on January 27, 2017 and I’ll be waiting in line to see it day one.