Everyone in Hollywood is known for something. Early in Charles Martin Smith’s career, he was known to some of us as the fourth untouchable in Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables – you know, the one who wasn’t Kevin Costner, Sean Connery or Andy Garcia. Now, not so much. Now he’s known as the guy who makes animal movies. And not the good animal movies, like David Attenborough makes, or at least writes and stars in. The not-so-good animal movies, like Air Bud.
Since directing Air Bud in 1997, Smith has made Dolphin Tale, Dolphin Tale 2, A Dog’s Way Home, and now A Christmas Gift from Bob, which stars a cat named Bob. You’d hope he’d be getting better at this – Smith, not Bob – but the films have demonstrated a sort of predictable workmanlike mediocrity over those 25 years. At least the animals don’t talk, though in Bob’s case, that could be an improvement, as it is otherwise quite difficult to discern his personality.
Just because a movie involves animal buddies for the human characters does not automatically mean it’s no good. And A Christmas Gift from Bob does have good elements to it, one of which is its intentions. The film is a sequel to 2016’s A Street Cat Named Bob, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who has a James Bond movie under his belt – which means this series has better credentials than your average TV-ready animal buddy movies. Both films are about the struggle of a homeless drug addict to clean up his life through the positive impact of this stray, and they are based on the real-life experiences of British man James Bowen, who has written three best-selling memoirs.
After the events of the first film saw James (Luke Treadaway) become a bit of a publishing sensation with the sale of his first memoir, now James finds himself in a position to help others. A former busker and the veteran of plenty of run-ins with the police, James intervenes when he sees some officers hassling a homeless busker who reminds him of himself. While providing this man a meal, James recounts his own past experiences raising himself up from destitution with the help of his orange tabby.
The majority of the story recounted by James involves his interactions with a pair of animal welfare officers who want to take Bob away from him. James takes Bob with him everywhere, including busking in the streets at Christmastime, meaning not only is the cat likely cold, but James has to keep him on a lead to prevent him from running away. (This hardly seems like a real worry, considering how docile Bob is, and how content he is to ride around perched on James’ shoulders.) As James deals with day-to-day issues of the recently impoverished, like having enough money to keep his electricity going, he also must manage the increasing scrutiny into his life by these officers.
Although A Christmas Gift from Bob springs from James Bowen’s own experiences, it strains credibility in terms of the unnatural level of interest by these officers in Bob’s welfare. It may be true to what actually happened, in which case, it highlights a reality about animal welfare that beggars belief. With the number of animals in the world that are mistreated, stray, without food, or trapped in a shelter, it hardly seems believable – unless as the driving conflict in a film narrative – that two animal welfare officers would spend the lion’s share of their time investigating whether a busker’s cat, who has become something of a local celebrity, needs to find a different home. It seems to pass the eye test that Bob is a happy cat who might be far luckier than many of his brethren.
Yet this is essentially the primary conflict of the whole 90-minute narrative, making it seem hopelessly protracted. Bob doesn’t really help matters. Although certainly an effectively trained animal actor, more than capable of pouncing on a Christmas tree that surely has a bit of cat nip fastened to its top, Bob doesn’t produce much in the way of a personality. He’s certainly a valuable entity to James, as the need to care for Bob helped him kick heroin and turn his life around. The film, however, does not make a convincing case that Bob is a naturally charming creature who wins over everyone he meets. They may be more reacting to the eccentricity displayed by James, in carrying a cat around on his shoulders (an image that often prompts light guffaws), and in dressing that cat in a Santa outfit given him by a fan. (That may actually be the worst animal cruelty James displays.)
What keeps the film from being a bigger miss is that it has an uncommonly serious purpose beneath its sappier instincts. It’s not often that we see issues like drug addiction and homelessness tackled in films designed to be watched by children, and A Christmas Gift from Bob addresses these in ways that are palatable without dumbing them down. James is not some jaunty Dickensian version of a man of little means, but rather an actual scraggly looking bloke who hasn’t showered for three days because his water has been turned off, who has only isolated cereals boxes and dented cans of vegetables in his cabinets, and who sells The Big Issue. There would have been far simpler ways to make this movie and to avoid its more difficult issues.
Sadly, there will not be a third Bob movie, or at least, not one starring the actual Bob. Just before the credits, we see that the film is dedicated to Bob, who died mid-way through 2020. (This awful year strikes again, hey?) It’s sad because the death of a cat is sad, but it will at least spare us that third movie when there is not nearly enough material to keep the story going. They barely made it through this one, and had to steer awfully close to holiday-related mawkishness in order to do so.
A Christmas Gift from Bob opens in cinemas 3 December.