In the Scottish town of Greyfriars, local policeman John Gray allows a shy boy named Ewan (Oliver Golding) to befriend his faithful dog Bobby. When Gray dies in the line of duty, his body is buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, overseen by Minister Lee (Greg Wise). Despite strict laws forbidding the entrance of dogs, Bobby sneaks inside every day to keep watch by his master’s grave. Greyfriars’ gravedigger, James Brown (James Cosmo) takes a liking to Bobby and gives him food and protection. However, when the passing of a new dog law in Scotland threatens Bobby’s very existence, Ewan tries desperately to save his canine friend.
Eleanor Atkinson’s original novel is a favourite of dog lovers everywhere and the 1961 Walt Disney adaptation is a staple of Sunday afternoon family viewing. This remake courted mild controversy by casting - gasp! - a West Highland White Terrier in place of the novel’s Skye Terrier and, in a further mishap, had its lottery funding mysteriously withdrawn by co-developers Scottish Screen. Although filming was set to be relocated to Luxemburg, it seems saner heads prevailed and a story that is in part a hymn to Edinburgh remained on local shores. The one concession being scenes set around Edinburgh castle were actually filmed in nearby Stirling Castle.
While the title character is certainly a likeable little pooch, the film suffers from trying to warp the simple storyline beyond all recognition. Instead of a kindly old man, here Bobby’s owner is an idealistic copper eager to further young Ewan’s education, until fate deals him a cruel hand in the form of a violent mugger. Heck, even Bobby gets knifed in neck. Yikes! As in the novel and Disney’s version, everybody from Mr. Brown to a castle full of Scottish fusiliers claim Bobby as their own until it gradually becomes apparent he belongs to the whole of Edinburgh. However, the script shoehorns in a couple of glowering villains: charity commissioner Cecil Johnson (Ronald Pickup), whose motivation isn’t entirely clear, and textile factory owner Duncan Smithie (Sean Pertwee), who takes an almost-proprietary interest in Ewan’s mother (Kirsty Mitchell).
Amongst a largely agreeable cast, Gina McKee manages a few grace notes of sympathy for her bereaved widow. You feel for her as the rather selfish Ewan takes away the one thing she has left of her husband, although she sweetly lets Bobby go home. Sporting some freaky facial hair, Ardal O’Hanlon lends eccentric support as Irish rogue Coconut Tam, always ready with a money-making scheme. What’s he doing in Scotland? Search me.
The film features the expected canine heroics - mostly centred around Bobby’s long journey home - but weaves in some bizarre digressions: hints of a psychic link between Ewan and Bobby; the tenement block that suddenly collapses killing Ewan’s mother; his unlikely escape from the orphanage; and a crass comedy capper wherein Bobby pisses on his two adversaries. The orphanage scenes pile on some sub-Dickensian pathos as Ewan is worked till his fingers bleed and cruelly taunted by Johnson. However, whilst cleaning Johnson’s library he teaches himself all about Edinburgh law, leading to the protracted courtroom climax that features cameos from Ian Richardson as the presiding judge and, as the Lord Provost, Christopher Lee. Lee is wonderful and surmises both Bobby’s plight and that of the poor quite eloquently, but the scene drags on needlessly past his heroic gesture. Cinematographer John Ignatius drenches the rolling Scottish hillside in amber and orange hues, leaving things rather too close to a Hallmark greeting card. While it passes the time amiably, the film seems unlikely to supplant its predecessor as a cosy, teatime classic.