From Greyfriars Bobby to Isle of Dogs via Lassie Come Home, the relationship between man and canine has delighted cinemagoers since the very birth of the medium, and a recurring theme in Hollywood concerns dogs functioning as a means of bringing families together – specifically through making distracted fathers care about their children more. Many of the plot summaries of family dog movies mention some variation or other of ‘healing the broken family’, but what, beyond imagery of cute dogs frolicking about, might be the wider significance of this not-insubstantial subgenre?
In the first Beethoven film, it takes a contrived plot involving the titular St. Bernard foiling an attempted animal experimentation plan at the hands of Dr. Herman Varnick (Dean Jones) for workaholic father George’s (Charles Grodin) jealousy of Beethoven to morph into grudging respect, and for his workaholism to dissipate somewhat in favour of being an actual father. The subsequent seven Beethoven movies (of which the last six were straight to video) see the prodigious dog providing various forms of canine assistance to whichever family he has been shipped off to.
Meanwhile, in the wildly successful Marley and Me, unsuccessful writer John Grogan (Owen Wilson), is jealous of his wife Jenny’s (Jennifer Aniston) journalistic prowess and, following the advice of a friend, gets a puppy. Through this, Jenny will be inspired to have children though experiencing having ‘something to care for other than [John].’ The badly behaved puppy becomes an integral part of the quickly unfurling family, providing John with companionship and empathy – who could understand the turmoil of male sexual unfulfillment better than a dog who is about to have his balls cut off? Meanwhile, Jenny battles with feelings of inadequacy in her concurrent jobs of successful writer and mother, deciding to abandon her career in favour of looking after the children, while John is finally allowed to be the brilliant writer that he should’ve been all along.
Marley’s proclivities for ripping up furniture, stealing food, humping human legs, and shitting in the sea with gay abandon while John looks on in a state of fond exasperation situate him, in Freudian pop psychology terms, as an external manifestation of John’s id, which the walking ego that is John ineffectively attempts to keep a lid on. John starts the film by whining and ends with everything he wanted, making zero compromises and using Marley as a means of negating personal responsibility along the way. Marley acts as a catalyst to force the family unit into existence and ensure that nuclear family values are upheld.
The weirdest and most extreme example of dogs bringing families together comes in the form of 2017’s The Stray. The film follows a mysterious collie dubbed Pluto the Wonderdog, who, as Wikipedia tells it, “manages to save a toddler, bring comfort and companionship to a hurting 9-year-old boy, help restore a marriage, and repair a broken father-son relationship.” Big responsibility to be put on such small furry shoulders. What Wikipedia fails to mention is that, in his position as saviour of the family, one of the ways in which Pluto enacts his duties is to be struck by lightning and killed on an ill-advised camping trip. The father, in this case Mitch (Michael Cassidy) carries Pluto’s body stretched across his shoulders, invoking some of the most blatant Jesus-and-cross imagery to be found outside of an actual stained glass window. Pluto has died for Mitch’s sins, and he can finally be a good father and a genius writer (yes, Mitch is a writer too).
Despite the temptation after watching The Stray, it’s probably a stretch to contend that dogs in feel-good family films are structurally representative of physical manifestations of deities – though, it is perhaps worth taking into account that the real Mitch Davis who wrote and directed The Stray is a dedicated member of the Mormon church. What these Christian undertones suggest, though, is that there exists a ‘mildly helpful’ to ‘actual Jesus’ scale for these canines, indicative of how much responsibility the inhabitants of whatever typical American household will project onto the family dog. Beloved pet pooches in these films seemingly exist to fill in emotional holes that cannot or will not be filled by humans.
The varying requirements of the humble family dog are explored in A Dog’s Purpose, directed by Lasse Hallström (who knows a thing or two about canine empathy, having been nominated for the Best Director Oscar in 1985 for My Life as a Dog). The film follows one dog, Bailey, on a journey through time from the 1960s to the present in various reincarnated forms. He is found near the beginning by a child named Ethan and quickly settles into the standard helping-nuclear-family set up, although the father’s preoccupation with the Cold War leads him into an infuriatingly stereotypical downward spiral of alcoholism and abuse that even Bailey cannot save him from. From this point, Bailey inhabits many different breeds, names, and genders, helping a sad policeman on his law enforcement missions and a reclusive young woman find love, before ultimately ending up back with Ethan in the present day (who he helps get together with the love of his life).
Throughout this process, Bailey endures a Christ-like amount of suffering, but remains a pure soul left time and again to pick up the pieces of humanity’s failed endeavours. He spends the duration of the film trying to discover what his reason for being is, concluding that a dog’s purpose is to:
- Have fun.
- Whenever possible, find someone to save and save them.
- Lick the ones you love.
- Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and all scrunchy-faced about what could.
- Be here now. Be. Here. Now.
You can choose to interpret this in a nice way (that the film encourages its child audience to express love, enjoy life, and live in the present) or more cynically: that the film’s meta-commentary about the role of dogs in Hollywood legitimises negation of human responsibility and upholding of oppressive American family values. The huge success of Marley and Me, A Dog’s Purpose, and Beethoven indicates that perhaps it benefits late-stage capitalism for children to be encouraged to consume regressive conservative-coded media – so long as it’s sugar-coated with the inclusion of a lovely dog.
Published 15 Aug 2023