“A Dog’s Purpose,” the feel-good film about man’s best friend based on the blockbuster book by W. Bruce Cameron, has been dogged by controversy since Jan. 18, when TMZ aired a clip from the set showing a German shepherd desperately resisting being shoved into a turbulent pool by a handler, and, later, foundering in the churning water.
If the response of New York movie buffs and animal lovers is any indication, the movie about a dog’s loving nature and multiple reincarnations — which opens Friday in NYC — may have trouble getting traction with viewers.
“I’m in full agreement with PETA,” which advocates boycotting the film, said Mark George-Cohen, 53, a paralegal who lives in Chelsea who was “very disturbed” by what he saw.
The movie industry’s animal watchdog, American Humane, suspended its animal safety representative for the film when the footage came to light, and began an investigation, which is expected to conclude before Friday, said American Humane spokesman Mark Stubis.
Producers Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures issued a statement saying they were continuing to review the circumstances, but that the shot was stopped after the dog, Hercules, refused to perform, and they were confident “great care” was taken with all of the animal actors. The companies also canceled the movie’s premiere and press junket, no doubt fearing attention would center on the 58-second clip instead of the two-hour movie.
The TMZ tape — which spread like parvovirus throughout social media — influenced many busy New Yorkers to say they don’t care what the investigation reveals. Even if American Humane concludes all the dogs in the movie were treated humanely, “I’m not going to believe it,” said Raz Reshef, 30, a flight attendant who lives between Hell’s Kitchen and Israel. Given the millions of dollars at stake in a Hollywood film, it is unlikely the investigation results would reflect unflatteringly on the production, she and others said.
“There should be no discomfort at all,” for animals coaxed to perform, said Joanna Trumino, 28, a hair stylist, dog trainer and animal rescuer from Fresh Meadows who believes all animal training should be incentive-and-reward based. Birds and Animals Unlimited, the firm that supplied and trained Hercules, has said it is “evaluating its legal options,” in response to the clip, which it called “disturbing, defamatory and maliciously edited”: Hercules, according to Birds and Animals, resisted entering the pool because he had been trained to do so from another place, and entered “happily,” when taken to the spot with which he was familiar. He was never thrown into the water, said the company.
“That explanation makes sense to me,” said Trumino, adding. “I hope it’s true.”
But in the internet call-out culture of outrage, it is hard to un-ring the Pavlovian bell of scandal involving a sympathetic animal once it has been rung, no matter the truth or context.
Trumino (“I love movies and I really love dog movies!”) is not sure what could reassure her enough to plunk down the price of a ticket. In fact, she is now ruminating uncomfortably about how dogs may have been treated in other films she has enjoyed.
The film’s producer, Gavin Polone, conceded in The Hollywood Reporter that the dog’s less than one-minute struggle and four-second submersion “are absolutely INEXCUSABLE and should NEVER have happened.” But, said Polone, a vegan and animal lover, “the dog was NEVER forced into the water,” and the clip was “highly misleading.”
“I definitely don’t think the animal was in danger of drowning,” though he may have been briefly frightened, said Vanessa Hammer, a veterinarian who lives in Chelsea. But dogs “get scared when they come to the vet!” Hammer noted. Hammer was not as alarmed as some New Yorkers by the film clip — but she still won’t be in the audience. “I don’t like the premise,” of the movie, which involves a dog’s repeated reincarnation, she said.
Karen Copeland, a prominent NYC pet attorney, believes in pet reincarnation, but said she has an uncomfortable relationship with all animal movies because their furry protagonists “usually die.” “I’m against any exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes,” Copeland added.
Tiffany Lacey, the executive director of an animal rescue organization in lower Manhattan who lives on the Upper West Side, won’t be watching “A Dog’s Purpose” for another reason: “I’m so busy rescuing animals at Animal Haven, I don’t have time to see movies,” she said.