Christmas films are the comfort food of the season, a chance to pretend, if only for a couple of hours, that the world is as wonderful as we imagine it to be at this time of year.
It’s usually not, of course, because sadly the world at large does not take a festive break from cruelty and sadness and a whole host of other very un-falalalala sins, but while we watching a film like A Christmas Gift From Bob, decked out in all of London’s Christmas finery, we can believe that all the worst things that can happen to us come with happy endings, a glass of eggnog and peace and goodwill to all people.
As far as its ability to weave a spell of Christmas escapism goes, A Christmas Gift From Bob is a sweet enough effort, showing us what can happen when the good people of the world, and those who can be good if only they were given a chance, all band together to stare the powers of cold, heartless officialdom.
And yes, in a movie that leans heavily on evil of a most un-Christmas flavour, in this case a malcontented animal welfare officer who is determined to pry Bob away from his reformed drug addict fur dad James Bowen (Luke Treadaway, who is also listed as an executive producer), the fight is definitely between the forced of goodness and community and friendship and a Scrooge-like figure who cares not if Bob and James need each other more than life itself.
That kind of use of cliche is not necessarily a mortal sin in and of itself.
After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Christmas film that didn’t lean on the idea that the most wonderful time of year is so full of potent love, good cheer and bonhomie that it can stare all kinds of foes and emerge singularly triumphant every time.
So the fact that A Christmas Gift From Bob rests on this well-worn festive dynamic is neither a shock nor a negative.
Its use of this inspirational aspect of Christmas movie storytelling makes all the more sense when you consider that James Bowen, who struggled with mental health issues and drug addiction before he encountered a stray ginger cat called Bob e who gave him the motivation to turn his life around.
That’s a vast simplification of what took place but suffice to say that Bowen and Bob’s tale is an inspirational one on all kinds of levels, with a number of books including A Street Cat Named Bob, The World According to Bob and A Gift from Bob, and a 2016 film, also called A Street Cat Named Bob, selling in huge numbers around the world to people desperate for a good news in a world criminally short of them.
You can well understand why writer Charles Jenkins and director Charles Martin Smith decided to go out all out on the feel good vibes because that is Bowen and Bob’s bread and butter – Bob sadly has not passed away and his loss is acknowledged in the film’s dedication – and what makes this story of a man redeemed and a cat saved and loved so widely and deeply appealing.
That element is very much in evidence in A Christmas Gift From Bob which tells a story from some years earlier where Leon (Tim Plester) the animal welfare officer in question is determined to part cat from human in defiance of a groundswell of community and personal support which includes Bowen’s convenience store owner and friend Moody (Phaldut Sharma), his bestie and possible love interest, charity worker Bea (Kristina Tonteri-Young), and a celebrity chef called Arabella (Anna Wilson-Jones with more than a touch of Nigella Lawson about her) whom Bowen helps one day when she is thoughtlessly knocked to the ground by a self-involved passer-by.
Bowen is in many ways a decent caring guy, and while he has his issues, he is at heart a man who is well-loved and well-respected and the outpouring of support for him makes perfect, heartwarming sense, especially in the context of a Christmas film.
What it doesn’t feel, however, is well earned.
While it becomes rather clumsily clear that Leon, and his partner Ruth (Pepter Lunkuse), who doesn’t like the man she works with but who acquiesces despite all evidence to the contrary, as does her boss, are out to get Bowen and safeguard Bob, there’s a hollow illogicality to proceedings.
It’s almost like Jenkins knew where he wanted to started with the film and where he wanted to end up – that part pretty much writes itself in many festive films though it has to be said, it does make for a rather lovely ending – and decided to fudge the middle bits hoping we wouldn’t notice.
While everyone from Bowen to Moody and Bea all have their own issues with the season, and their stories are given sufficient time in the narrative sun to make an impact, you never really feel like Bowen is in any actual danger, nor that the risk of him being separated from his tiny, ginger saviour is ever a real possibility.
So, while there is plenty of festive good cheer to go around and you fall in love with Bowen, Bob and everyone in their much loved orbit, there simply isn’t enough story around them to really make much of an impact.
The pieces are all there, and they are effective enough that the film is a delight albeit a slight one to sit through, but they not well enough utilised so that while all the heartwarming bells and whistles make their presence felt, A Christmas Gift From Bob is a not a classic addition to the genre, relying far too much on a cute cat and a man in peril to get it through and forgetting that to really make a festive impact, the happy-ever-after has to match the threat that engenders which frankly, in this instance, is not up to the task.