Less-known Christmas films: Shelby: The Dog Who Saved Christmas

We continue to hunt for Christmas masterpieces in the DVD bargain bin. Today? It's Shelby's turn...

When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, I’m not sure he had any idea that he was creating the template that would go on to define every bargain bin Christmas movie. There will be a threat to a happy Christmas. Family is important. Someone will need to find their festive spirit. There’s some kind of moral lesson. There will be snow. Probably.

In the case of Shelby: The Dog Who Saved Christmas, it’s pretty much all of the above combined with a boy-wants-dog story and a tweenage magic trick heist finale to top it all off. The titular hound (voiced by Rob Schneider) is a regular escapee of the pound, pursued at all times by Doug the Dog Catcher (Tom Arnold), or Dog the Doug Catcher as he’s frequently called. On one of these many escapes, he’s hit by a truck driven by Edward Parker (Jefferson Brown) who takes an injured Shelby home.

His wife isn’t too keen on dogs, but not to worry because Shelby escapes into the basement and the Parker family remain unaware that he’s in the house. That is except for Jake (John Paul Ruttan), an isolated little boy who dreams of being a magician and decides that Shelby should be his assistant. When Doug comes searching, Jake and Shelby must unite to prevent their Christmas from being ruined and produce a little seasonal magic in the process.

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There are certain names on a cast list that just make you bristle. I must admit, when Shelby landed on my doormat with Rob Schneider’s name on the DVD cover I feared the worst, and when it comes to Schneider’s work on this movie, those fears weren’t entirely unfounded. Much of Shelby’s narration and voiceover seems based on a wide variety of dog-based clichés with the odd double-entendre thrown in for the parents watching along. The jokes fall flat and the distinctly unimpressed expression on the dog in contrast to Schneider’s enthusiastic voiceover becomes an inadvertent running gag in itself.

Unsurprisingly, the movie gets better once Schneider stops talking and leaves it to the film’s human cast to lay on the charm. At its heart is John Paul Ruttan, previously seen in the Robocop remake, playing Jake as the comically inept child magician whose isolation drives much of his friendship with Shelby. He’s the kind of wide-eyed look that a Christmas film needs and Ruttan carries the more saccharine content with ease, even generating a couple of laughs himself with his magic-trick based heist to retrieve Shelby.

The other youngsters in the cast equip themselves well within some classic stereotyping; there’s a spoilt pre-teen cousin who says ‘like’ all the time and is only obsessed with how much everything costs, but she does a fine line in code names during the heist. “The Pope has left the Vatican!” she cries as Doug returns to his desk. Jake’s older brother, Brent, is consumed by video games and eating tortilla chips whilst his little sister holds adorable tea parties with an assortment of stuffed animals.

In the adult cast, there’s only really one name that stands out from the crowd. As Jake’s grandpa, Chevy Chase appears to be playing Pierce Hawthorne with the passive-aggressive insults and far-fetched worldly anecdotes, and the odd inappropriate comment or two; “I haven’t seen breasts that plump since your mother died.” It’s kind of glorious. As you’d expect, the more adult laughs start once he arrives in the film, equipped with a selfie-taking, social media obsession and an ability to hashtag everything.

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He naturally gets the biggest laughs, but also gets a more dramatic moment of his own as he reflects on his wife’s death whilst talking Jake through the difficulties of loss. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but an emotional one that stands out from the pratfalls elsewhere. It also allows the film’s moral message on the importance of family to get a moment in the spotlight before Shelby’s final narration spells it all out anyway for us at the end.

The film’s humour, Chase aside, tends to grate as it devolves into fart jokes and pooping, of both the human and dog variety. I’m sad to say that laxatives are a key part of the plot, along with all the attendant sound effects that you can imagine. For little people still of an age to appreciate the hilarities of poop, I’m absolutely sure it’ll have them rolling in the aisles. There’s always a fine line in family films where jokes can cater to different generations and whilst Shelby doesn’t quite hit it, the sight of Chase despairingly guzzling whisky during a carol singers endurance test restores the balance somewhat.

Whether you would consider Shelby to be a long lost Christmas classic probably depends on your capacity for laxative jokes and Rob Schneider. Fortunately, the moments in between are really quite sweet, especially in the hands of its young cast and an old veteran in Chevy Chase. I’m certainly not suggesting it’s up there with the Scrooges and Cratchits of this world, but as something festive to stick on during a lazy Christmas hour or two, we could all do a lot worse than Shelby. Dare I say it, the film’s final moments even border on heartwarming.

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