Parents of small children are often stymied as they search for a movie to watch with the kids. You want something with cute puppies, sure. But you also want something that has dogs being shot by cruel men. A film depicting the special bond between a boy and his pet can warm the heart — but it would be nice if the movie could also be a depressing account of death and regret, about a man’s failure to be a good father and husband, and the remorse he will feel forever. Ideally, this movie should also have a squirrel who speaks with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

Well, I have good news! You do not need to pool your resources and employ craftspeople to write and produce a film meeting all of the above criteria, because one already exists! It is called “Fluke”! It was released in 1995, apparently in the hopes that people would watch it and enjoy it. Such an outcome is unlikely, yet that was evidently the filmmakers’ hope.

“Fluke” is the story of a man named Tom who dies in a car wreck and is reincarnated as a golden retriever. Being a dog is normally a step up from being a human, what with being able to sleep as much as you want and lick yourself, but the dog version of Tom is born to a stray that lives in an alley. Then again, when he was a human, he was Matthew Modine, so maybe it all balances out.

Dog Tom, who does not remember his former life yet, barely has time to enjoy his new situation (starving on the street) before he and his mother and siblings are captured by dog catchers and taken to an animal shelter. It’s not the good kind of shelter, either, but the kind where they murder you if you stay longer than a week. (Motel 6 has the same policy.) The animal shelter is a terribly sad place, full of forlorn-looking puppies and kitties in gloomy cages, yearning to share their love with someone. It’s like those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials, except that at least the commercials end with an opportunity for you to feel better by donating money. All “Fluke” does is make you sad, for no reason. This will be a recurring theme.

Luckily, just as things are at their darkest, Dog Tom escapes from the pound and dashes out into the world, where he is adopted by an elderly homeless woman who names him Fluke before dying in an alley. If you are scoring along at home, Tom has now 1) died, 2) been reborn as a stray dog, 3) seen his dog family imprisoned, 4) lived on the streets again with a bag lady, and 5) watched his new companion die. Where will this children’s movie/festival of horrors take us next? Let us find out!

Alone and scared, Fluke ( Tom) is further alarmed by the arrival of a fellow stray dog, named Rumbo, who speaks to him with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson. What’s alarming is that Rumbo isn’t actually making a sound — Fluke is hearing his voice in his mind. “It’s a mental thing,” Rumbo says, rather nonchalantly.

So! Dogs can communicate telepathically, but only if another dog teaches them how. Suddenly Fluke’s remarkably traumatic afterlife in this delightful Saturday matinee of a film has taken a Lovecraftian turn.

Fluke and Rumbo are best pals now. They are ESP BFFs. They mooch food from a short-order cook named Bert (Bill Cobbs) and live at an auto-wrecking yard operated by a friendly fellow named Clyde (Jon Polito). No longer living in a constant state of panic and stress, Fluke is able to relax a little, and he starts to remember his life as a human. To be specific, he remembers that he was married to Nancy Travis, and he remembers their phone number. You might think a dog wouldn’t be able to do much with either of those pieces of information. You might think a dog wouldn’t even know who Nancy Travis is. But you don’t know Fluke! Fluke trots right into Clyde’s office, knocks the telephone handset off its cradle, and dials the number with his paw. When his wife answers, he … well, he breathes heavily at her, in a doglike fashion. Because he’s a dog. He can’t talk, you know, and he can only communicate telepathically with other dogs. Even if he could talk, what’s he going to tell Nancy Travis? “Honey, it’s me, Tom. After I died I became a dog, and my name is Fluke now, and I have called you on the telephone. I think we can still make this work.”

The phone call ends with neither party satisfied. Then, because it’s been a few minutes since something awful has happened, Fluke is captured by Ron Perlman and taken to a cosmetics laboratory that does animal testing. Fluke is on the verge of being permanently blinded by chemicals when Rumbo crashes through the window to save the day. All the animals in the lab are set free! In the escape, however, Rumbo is shot by Ron Perlman, who only appeared in the movie long enough to fire a bullet into a heroic dog. Just before Rumbo dies, he confides in Fluke that he, too, was once a human, and that he wishes he could smell the ocean again. He doesn’t get to smell the ocean again, though. He just dies, right there outside the cosmetics lab, murdered in cold blood by Ron Perlman while selflessly rescuing his friend from torture.

Thank you, movie! The nightmares will be much more vivid now.

His memory jarred by this latest incident of ineffable tragedy, Fluke now recalls where he lived when he was Tom. He remembers that he and Nancy Travis, whose name is Carol, had a young son, Brian (Max Pomeranc). He remembers that the car wreck that killed him was caused by his business partner, Jeff (Eric Stoltz). Fluke yearns to return home, to feel the warm embrace of his loving family, and to inflict harsh, pitiless vengeance upon his murderer. It is the archetypical hero’s journey.

Fluke travels via montage to his former city of residence and gets his wife and son, unaware of who he really is, to adopt him as a pet. He lifts their spirits and brings gladness to their hearts. He uses his dog mouth to tenderly pull the covers over his sleeping son, tucking him in as best he can. He gazes longingly at his sleeping wife, probably having thoughts the details of which we would do well not to consider.

Fluke-Tom’s supposedly evil business partner, Jeff, shows up at the house, all chummy with Carol and Brian, and Fluke cannot tolerate this, so he bites Jeff. Being able to bite people who bother you is another perk of being a dog. Hungry for more justice, Fluke follows Jeff to their old office (somehow), hides from him all day (somehow), sneaks into the backseat of Jeff’s car (somehow), then pops up suddenly while Jeff is driving, and attacks him. One hopes that Jeff can appreciate what an amusing anecdote this will make later on. (“So the next day, I’m driving home from work, and there in the backseat is the crazy dog that had bitten me the night before!”)

But now Fluke is starting to remember more details of his life as Tom. It turns out Jeff didn’t run him off the road that night — Tom was driving recklessly. In fact, Tom was kind of an a-hole, reducing the quality of their company’s product to save money and neglecting his wife and son. Fluke thought he was an innocent family man who’d been murdered; now he recalls that he was actually a douchebag who wrecked his car. It’s because of flawed memories like these that a dog’s testimony is inadmissible in court.

Well, now Fluke is pretty depressed. Just to recap: he died, came back as a stray dog, went to jail, watched a homeless lady die, had chemicals poured in his eyes, watched his best friend die, spent time with his family without them knowing it was him, realized he’d been a failure as a husband and father, and remembered that his tragic death had been his own fault. This is a lot for a dog to take in all at once. One minute you’re sniffing someone’s butt, the next minute you’re awash in existential guilt as you contemplate your failings in a past life.

Does the movie at least end with Fluke living out the remainder of his days as a faithful canine companion to his wife and son? No indeed! Aware that he will be miserable being so close to them yet so far away, Fluke leaves the family and sets out on his own. In the final scene, he meets a squirrel who it turns out is Rumbo, reincarnated yet again, and now the squirrel and the dog are going to be best friends. For some reason the movie thinks this is a happy ending. I guess it is, in a way, in the sense that it is infused with less soul-crushing despair than everything that preceded it. Compared to the excruciating cavalcade of misery that has come before it, an ending in which the dog spends the rest of his life with a squirrel is downright cheerful.

We end with Tom-Fluke delivering this monologue in voice-over narration:

“So this is my story. Perhaps I was made to remember so that I could share it with you. And perhaps there are many out there like me, hiding behind the eyes of simple creatures. Maybe even someone close to you.”

In other words: your dog might have the mind and memories of a dead person you loved, so be extra suspicious of everything it does, and don’t let it watch you when you’re in the shower, the end.

P.S. The trailer conveys none of the sadness.

— Film.com