It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and Hallmark Channel is beginning to look a lot like Animal Planet. Two holiday movies — including “One Christmas Eve,” the first Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation not to air on broadcast television — will run on successive Sundays, and both feature adorable dogs at the center of the action. While each project possesses likable elements, the similarities say as much as one needs to know regarding the formulaic approach of the network’s “Countdown to Christmas” lineup, which now dutifully arrives each year with all the workmanlike efficiency of Santa’s elves.
Starring Anne Heche, “One Christmas Eve” is the higher-profile of the two films, in which the mysterious arrival of a new puppy triggers a hijinks-filled series of incidents, ultimately reinforcing the message that family is what you choose to make of it.
By contrast, “The Christmas Shepherd,” headlined by Teri Polo, is a more conventional romance, as a widowed children’s book writer is understandably upset when her late husband’s beloved German Shepherd escapes during a storm. The dog, Buddy, winds up at the house of a single dad, Mark (Martin Cummins), and his young daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson), who instantly becomes attached to the beast, providing a kibbles-n-bits version of “meet-cute.”
What proves most fascinating, though, are the parallels between the two movies. Polo’s husband is dead, for instance, and her son is serving in Afghanistan. In “One Christmas Eve,” the fellow who drops off the puppy at Heche’s house, Cesar (Carlos Gomez), is widowed, and his daughter’s serving in Afghanistan.
Nothing says Christmas cheer, apparently, quite like deceased spouses and absent loved ones in the military.
To its credit, “The Christmas Shepherd,” written by Michael J. Murray and directed by Terry Ingram, doesn’t throw a lot of silly interludes into the narrative, beyond the central conceit that Mark and his daughter are reluctant to give the dog back immediately to its rightful owner. Instead, the movie relies on the fragility of Polo’s character — her reticence to try dating again — to keep Mark at bay. That said, Ace the dog (aw, who’s a good boy?) predictably steals every scene he’s in.
Similarly, “One Christmas Eve” — directed by Jay Russell from a script by Holly Goldberg Sloan — represents a step up in class from the “Hall of Fame’s” uninspired stretch while airing on ABC, although its quirkiness in getting from Heche’s insistence that “I’ve got everything under control” to the heartwarming finale proves strained and uneven.
Despite the divergent tones, both movies fall into the Hallmark wheelhouse, which hinges on the audience knowing how it’s all going to wind up in the first 10 minutes, and then just savoring the voyage.
Still, in the spirit of not leaving anything to chance, “One Christmas Eve” and “The Christmas Shepherd” each seal the deal, or at least try to, by assisting the audience with the dramatic equivalent of a guide dog.