BelleforChristmascoverGrade: C
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2014, 91 min., Color
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Rated PG for “mild thematic material and rude humor”
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Bonus features: None
Trailer (Caution: spoilers)

Anchor Bay Entertainment has found a nice little niche by marketing family movies—including Christmas-themed ones that feature dogs. They’re unabashedly warm and fuzzy, with second-tier supporting actors and screenplays that fall somewhere between Hallmark movies and the kind of kid-pet-parent shenanigans we often see on the Disney Channel. This holiday season you can even pick up a five-pack of canine Christmas movies: Chilly Christmas, A Christmas Wedding Tail, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation, and The Dog Who Saved the Holidays. They’re either made-for-TV movies or direct-to-video offerings, and how much your family likes them will likely depend on their ages and viewing tastes. The good news is that A Belle for Christmas, a new 2014 entry, is better than any of the previous doggie-holiday releases, with several likable characters, a cute pooch, and a plot that has kids, not adults, saving the day. The bad news is that if your children are as picky about their movies as they are their food, they may not respond well to the film’s clichés, the over- (or sometimes under-) acting, occasionally weak writing, and a pervasive undercurrent of sentimentality. The most likable character isn’t the dog at all. It’s Glenn Barrows (Dean Cain), a single father who’s trying to date again after losing his wife earlier in the year. He’s such a nice guy you wonder how he ever became a rich attorney and where he finds the time to spend with his kids. Personally, I think it’s a little soon for a relationship, much less a partial live-in girlfriend, but you can chalk that up to a facile screenplay that takes the quick route to conflict and relies on exaggeration to make its points.   BelleforChristmasscreenThen again, young viewers used to over-the-top characters on TV may respond well to the new girlfriend-slash-villain, a gold digger named Dani (Kristy Swanson) who makes it easy for audiences to hate her. She’s annoying and obvious, and it’s clear that the writers had Disney’s The Parent Trap in mind when they came up with this plot. She’ll do anything to worm her way into Glenn’s big house and bigger income, though she’s even less fond of his children (Jet Jergensmeyer and Meyrick Murphy) than they are of her. And that’s saying something. Still, she inserts herself into their activities even after they adopt a shepherd puppy, and despite allergies that produce an instant (and constant) reaction. I would rather have seen more of Haylie Duff (Napoleon Dynamite) as Kate, the canine foster caregiver who convinced the family that they needed a dog in the first place. But Duff was also busy making Christmas Belle, in which she played the lead actress. In a way, this film plays out like a reversal of Home Again, with kids on the prowl trying to break into a dog pound for a dramatic rescue. It’s all highly unbelievable and just as schmaltzy, but there’s a reason that a formula like this is used so often. It still works on some level. Families with children younger than fourth grade will like this more than older youngsters with more finicky tastes in films.