James looks back at the last Christmas he and Bob spent scraping a living on the streets and how Bob helped him through one of his toughest times – providing strength, friendship and inspiration – and ultimately teaching each other about the true meaning of Christmas spirit along the way.
A typical Christmas gift from a cat might be a dead mouse, or, if you have craft-obsessed children, a glittery furball. Bob’s gift is more thoughtful, though on occasion just as indigestible.
This sequel to 2016’s A Street Cat Named Bob aims for shades of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as Bob’s owner James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) looks back to a previous not-so-festive season in an attempt to help out Ben, a young homeless man who has lost hope.
At the end of the first film, James and Bob were ensconced in supported housing with a book on the way. Now they are both sort-of celebrities, and James is invited by his publishers to a glamorous Christmas party for all their authors. Even superstar writer Jacqueline Wilson is there, and she alone instantly recognises in James the terror of not being able to complete that expected yet still unwritten second book.
That’s a scene-setter for the main story, about a previous Christmas when the local council’s animal welfare department tries to take Bob away.
Council official Leon (Tim Plester) has it in for James, who is trying to live quietly while busking and selling the Big Issue. Leon’s attitude has already seen him unaccountably transferred to the animal welfare department, where he continues his persecution of James and Bob in his new role of evil cat catcher.
While his partner Ruth (Pepter Lunkuse) is more measured, the vicious Leon wants Bob removed from James’s care.
The question is does Bob’s lifestyle with James – spending his days on a blanket while James busks next to him – allows him to exhibit true cat behaviours. I must say, Bob looks fine to me, and considering the film almost entirely revolves around him while he just lies there disdainfully accepting strokes and presents, I’d say he was absolutely exhibiting true cat behaviours.
The script offers up an odd mix of festive do-goodery, pantomime villainy and a really important message about how society treats people like James: it’s out of sight out of mind, whether sticking spikes on doorways or closing the front door and walking away in a haze of self-congratulation once a homeless person gets their flat, regardless of what comes next.
Even the cat’s straightened circumstances are shown, when Bob and James witness a very pampered feline emerging from a vet with its overdressed owners: A Tale Of Two Kitties James calls it.
Those themes are understandably bleak, and I’m not sure how many families will want to watch James suffering as the kind of minor mistake anyone might make threatens to spiral his life downwards once again.
Treadaway, who mostly looks to be on the point of tears, is very affecting as James finds himself faced with a particularly cruel game of snakes and ladders: those with the least, and trying hardest, find themselves almost right back where they started.
Accidentally leaving his electric heater on when he goes into London for the day to busk means James, already struggling to make ends meet, loses all the money he’s paid out on electricity meter top-ups. (That crisis also brings home what counts as a disaster in a life lived on or near the edge, as well as our movie expectations. Usually in a film this would lead to a terrible house fire.)
James is helped by his friend and support worker Bea (Kristina Tonteri-Young), and local newsagent owner Moody (an excellent Phaldut Sharma). Both characters understand struggle and sadness, though Sharma’s is the more nuanced performance, probably because he’s the most interesting character; using fables to help James work out for himself what to do.
There are plenty more supporters of James and Bob too, and when the threat to Bob becomes public knowledge a wave of support to keep the two together emerges. A Christmas Gift From Bob is strong on both community spirit, and the professionals who work tirelessly to help people get back on their feet.
It’s Christmas, and there are some inevitably cringy-yet-feelgood scenes: hordes of people suddenly appearing to give Bob presents; a fellow Big Issue seller reconnecting with loved ones after a word from James. Snow. There are also some very moving scenes, as James sees his hard work dissolving with each – to us – minor problem. This really is the film’s core strength, that happy endings about an addict getting off drugs and off the streets are often not the end of the story, with the streets always just outside the door.
That bleakness shouldn’t really be a surprise if you’ve seen director Charles Martin Smith’s last movie. He certainly has experience of the “cute pet + trauma = slightly odd family film” formula, having also directed last year’s A Dog’s Way Home, about an adorable pitbull called Bella who travels across the Colorado mountains to find her way back to her loving owner. Bella encounters disaster after disaster, and I’ll not lie, it probably wasn’t a suitable film for my dog-loving child’s 7th birthday. “The Revenant for kids” my friend called it as we emerged shell-shocked into the sunlight, and my son still talks accusingly about “the really sad film about the dog you took me to on my birthday”.
Bob’s gift to you is, for most of the running time, a bleak tale of small mishaps leading to greater ones, with all the while the threat of being taken away from James. I’m not sure it really counts as a Christmas family film. Little kids, focusing on the fat ginger tom who is carried everywhere on his owner’s shoulders, may love it. But while there’s a commendably forthright moral heart to it for older children, they may find the bulk of the story upsetting.
While James and Bob do eventually get their well-deserved happy ending, the film finishes on a sad note. This was Bob’s last film as he died after an accident this summer.
A Christmas Gift From Bob is available on PVOD (premium video on demand) on 6 November 2020
Check out my plot recap here – James & Bob: cat-astrophe is averted, just in time for Christmas
Watch the trailer: