We haven’t really had a holiday season like this one. Lots of people won’t be able to spend time with their loved ones. While it’s the right thing to do, that doesn’t make it any easier. But that’s not to say we can’t find a little bit of family in our holiday entertainment.
Despite (or solely because) of its status as a cheesy, made-for-TV Christmas movie, The Dog Who Saved Christmas managed to assemble a largely recognizable cast. You’ve got Kevin James’ brother, Dean Cain, Adrienne Barbeau, Amber from Clueless, Frau Farbissina from Austin Powers, and Mario Lopez as the voice of the dog. Yep, Slater’s the dog.
Similar to seeing your own family for the holidays, you can’t help but recall fond memories of these cast members, coupled with the unfortunate realizations that come with adulthood. Hell, when I was a kid my mom and I watched Dean Cain every week on Lois and Clark. He was Superman. These days it’s impossible to separate Cain from his gross politics. But what says family more than looking at someone with a mix of nostalgia and disappointment?
The Dog Who Saved Christmas (the first installment in The Dog Who Saved Cinematic Universe) begins with Lopez narrating over footage of an impoverished dog cowering under a bridge. What holiday whimsy this is.
Introducing himself as Zeus, our titular canine turns himself over to the dogcatcher simply so he can get a meal. This is bleak. But I’m sure the tone will pick up and this dog won’t be characterized by any lingering trauma that dictates the remainder of this Christmas film.
Celebrating their first Christmas in their new house, the Bannisters are decking every square inch of hall in their massive estate. George, family patriarch and Paul Blart Lite, suggests the family get a watchdog after he reads about the numerous burglaries that occurred nearby.
Belinda, matriarch and Amber from Clueless, wants to discuss this major family decision before they raise and expertly dash the hopes of their two children. George immediately goes back on his promise and heads to the animal shelter.
Belinda gets the traditional “sensible TV wife” treatment in that you are supposed to dislike her. It’s like on Breaking Bad when everybody hated Skyler because she inconvenienced her husband’s meth empire.
Also, in an incredible piece of foreshadowing, Belinda asks her husband to secure the chandelier in the foyer, which she says is unstable. This thing is going to be a plot point. This is Chekhov’s chandelier.
George manages to survive being awkwardly greenscreened into an animal shelter and selects Zeus. The dogcatcher clinches the deal after informing George that Zeus was a former police dog and has a plaque and several awards. I don’t know who gives awards to dogs or how Zeus managed to keep track of his various plaudits during his time as a stray, but way to maintain your CV, Zeus.
George returns home with Zeus. Oddly enough, the house has a rodent infestation that chimes in with commentary like some sort of Greek chorus throughout the movie.
Another running theme throughout this film is that the two kids HATE their grandmother. For absolutely no reason, they despise this woman. Asking why they must spend Christmas with an elderly relative, Belinda says it’s tradition.
Belinda then describes tradition as “Something that you have to do, even though you may not want to.” That’s actually a pretty apt description of the holidays.
Keeping in the tradition of Christmas films, this film heavily features the seasonal hallmark of home invasion. Nothing says Christmas like utilizing violent guerrilla tactics to protect your property from thieves.
This film’s replacements for the Wet Bandits are Dean Cain (resistance leader in the War on Christmas) and his sidekick Stewey. These days, Cain only appears in Christian films as the atheist businessman who wants to buy the local youth center and turn it into a Bible crematorium, so it’s neat to see him here.
As the Dog Who Saved Christmas, Zeus’ character arc revolves solely around his inability to bark. Even a staged robbery fails to elicit a response from the so-called watchdog. Then comes the ultimatum: If Zeus doesn’t shape up by Christmas, it’s back to the pound.
The kids make an effort to save their new pet. They whip out a CD that is literally labeled “Teach Your Dog to Bark.” You know. That thing all pet owners want. Louder animals. Pet stores sell this CD right next to the diarrhea formula kibble and shedding activator.
As the children raise their haunches and howl along with the cacophony of recorded dog barks, we get our first look at the Cat Lady, the mysterious neighborhood boogeyman played by Adrienne Barbeau.
Barbeau is horror royalty, but she also voiced Catwoman on Batman: The Animated Series. The best part of her appearance in this film is that she’s mostly filmed from outside a window, which gives the appearance that she’s quarantined. Thank you for practicing proper social distancing, Ms. Barbeau.
Christmas soon arrives and Belinda calls on the family to give their tearful goodbyes to Zeus. Like the Ayn Rand of pet owners, she simply refuses to tolerate a dog without any utility. The children are assured they will leave these People’s States and find the John Gault of family pets.
This is where the tightly wound narrative begins to come to a head. The thieves are at the doorway. The chandelier hangs over the foyer like the Sword of Damocles. It’s like Knives Out in here.
Zeus manages to scare off the burglars by playing the CD of dogs barking. Looking for backup, he ventures outside the home, only to immediately knock himself unconscious.
Zeus awakens in the Cat Lady’s house. Since this is basically Home Alone with a dog, we learn that the mysterious neighborhood shut-in is actually a nice, sad human being. She explains that she doesn’t decorate for Christmas because she is alone. She’s outlived all her family. That’s rough. Or, if you’ll allow me to get into the spirit of the film, ruff. Like the sound a dog makes. Or would make if not for a deeply ingrained emotional problem.
Since this is a Christmas movie, the Cat Lady begins counseling Zeus about the nature of fear. She recounts her own dog turning against her one day and attacking. Zeus recalls his own trauma, flashing back to when he barked at a criminal and disrupted an undercover investigation. His partner was wounded. He hasn’t barked since.
This is the part of Christmas with your family where everyone’s enjoyed too much wassail, and reminiscing turns to recounting past grievances. It’s a tradition as old as time.
Having overcome his PTSD, Zeus returns home and enters into full Kevin McCallister mode. Everything becomes a weapon in the eyes of Zeus, the golden lab. Meanwhile at Grandma’s house, George and the family watch a movie about dogs, while he reads a dog magazine. The kids ask about the dog. Do you get it? Do you see where this is headed?
After being bashed with Christmas ornaments and flour, Cain and his fellow crook enter the Bannister home. They discover Zeus’ golden plaque honoring his service on the police force — a thing that dogs have.
Withering in the face of a newly emboldened Zeus, Cain accidentally shoots his sidekick in the head with a tranquilizer dart. The two bandits make it to the foyer, when — oh, here it is — Zeus drops the chandelier on the home invaders. Yes. Set up. Paid off. Someone read a book about screenwriting.
Shortly on the tails of the police, the Bannisters arrive back home to find Zeus has, in fact, saved Christmas. Someone says those actual words. The dog has saved Christmas. Fantastic. Great holiday fun.
So, I don’t remember all the movies like this I’ve watched. They aren’t meant to be remarkable. I can’t recall the titles. The plots blur together. But I remember watching them with my family when the holidays dictated we be together.
This year, when circumstances dictate we be apart, watching these movies reminds me of better times, when all I had to complain about was cliched plotlines and cheesy dialogue.
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