Film rides the appeal of a yellow Labrador to an audience's heart.
As evidenced by a legacy of mutt movies from “Old Yeller” to “Marley and Me,” there’s no surer way to an audience’s heart than by riding the appeal of a yellow Labrador. So “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” joins that pack with its 237th presentation, “A Dog Named Christmas,” adapting Greg Kincaid’s novel about a developmentally challenged young man and his emotionally stunted dad bonding over a you know what. To say I didn’t tear up in spite of anticipating every beat of the movie would be a big, fat, furry lie.
Braving the maxim not to work with kids or dogs, Bruce Greenwood plays Kansas farmer George McCray, whose 20-year-old son Todd (“The Riches’?” Noel Fisher) has a Lenny-in-“Of Mice and Men”-like affinity for tending to small woodland creatures.
Thus far, though, Todd has been denied his desire of owning a dog due to his dad’s stern resistance. In flashbacks we learn about George’s experience in Vietnam, which included leaving behind a beloved pooch when he went off to war.
The break comes when Todd learns about an “adopt a pet for the holidays” program that urges people to foster dogs until Christmas. George grudgingly agrees, with the understanding that the dog Todd takes home — a very, very good boy whom he names Christmas — will be returning to puppy prison on Dec. 26.
Christmas, though, is one of those movie/TV dogs who can do just about anything short of advanced algebra, and if you think he’s going to get sent back to doggy jail right after Christmas in a Hallmark movie meant to move holiday cards, you’ve been hitting the eggnog early this year. (The dog was black in the book, by the way, but they’re apparently more difficult to shoot than lighter-furred Labs.)
Greenwood delivers a performance that deftly mixes mush with machismo, Fisher chatters away garrulously and Linda Emond lends solid support as George’s patient wife. They’re aided in no small part by Johnny, the canine virtuoso cast as Christmas, as director Peter Werner plucks the emotional chords from Jenny Wingfield’s screenplay for all they’re worth, with able help from Jeff Beal’s score.
“Christmas” offers no surprises, but then again, that’s not the intent. It’s rather the kind of movie that turns up sparingly these days, especially on broadcast TV — one that makes you want to curl up next to a friend on a chilly night, and scratch him behind the ears.