This is where I stand on animals in popular culture: I hate manufactured cuteness. Therefore I hate Grumpy Cat and all those other internet cats who say cute things in atrocious spelling and grammar. I do like Henri, the Camus-quoting existentialist feline narrator of noirish autobiographical videos on Youtube, because any inherent cuteness that might attach to him on account of his nice thick black fur is counteracted by his profound ennui. (Henri/ennui – see what I did there?)
As for the internet, so with film. The best stories rely on the animal’s natural behaviour, which is why Skippy was crap (a crime-solving kangaroo? Give me a break) and Red Dog was good, like his screen ancestors Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. With dogs you don’t have to exaggerate much: as long as you choose the right breed you’ve got a perfectly plausible canine hero capable of great feats of intelligence, communication, loyalty and resourcefulness.
Cats? They’re different. I don’t care what cat people say, cats simply don’t have the same rapport with us as dogs do. Can you imagine a feline cinematic hero like, for instance, that wonderful Maremma sheepdog recruited to protect a colony of little penguins off the Victorian coast in Shane Jacobson’s film Oddball?
A Street Cat Named Bob says yes, you can. Bob is the animal hero who ends up saving his adoptive owner, a recovering heroin addict at his lowest ebb, from a life of squalor and homelessness. Well, that’s the way James Bowen tells it, and it helps mightily that this is essentially his true story.
Bowen was indeed a homeless addict, busking on the streets of London to survive, when Bob the ginger cat came into his life. That a cat might just move in and ‘adopt’ a person and a home is not at all unlikely, as long as it gets fed, of course. Everything else rings true: James takes Bob busking, and the presence of this beautiful ginger cat attracts more paying customers. It also gives James a competitive advantage over fellow homeless men when he gets a gig selling The Big Issue, and the fact that the ensuing turf war causes a setback for James is also eminently believable.
It’s also a matter of public record that this raffish duo became something of a Youtube phenomenon, which led to the book, which led to the movie….which is the way things go these days.
I could say I only went along to see it to accompany my friend Louise, a Cat Person of the first magnitude, but the truth is I’m a sucker for stories where animals bring out the best in us and enrich and improve our lives.
Being of a skeptical bent, I was on the alert for any fanciful attribution of super-feline powers to Bob. So was Louise, and we both ended up satisfied albeit for different reasons. Whereas she ended up crediting the happy ending to the – ahem – ‘spiritual’ thing happening between James and the cat, I thought it was more to do with the efforts of the social worker who took a punt on Bowen having the will to stick with the methadone program and finding him some basic accommodation in the first place.
I will grumble about some plot contrivances. For one thing, if the cat was so determined to stay with James, and smart enough to work out how to sneak onto a bus by the back stairway, why couldn’t he work out that the humans were only trying to help him by forcing pills down his gullet? But more to the point, why wouldn’t they just mash up the pills and put them in his food?
For another, while I’ll allow that you could possibly train a cat to do a high-five, the suggestion here is that Bob does it out of the blue. Puh-leeze.
But overall the cat’s role in the story isn’t over-sentimentalised, and I suppose the exaggeration is compatible with cinematic storytelling licence.
There is one big unanswered question in the story though: why the hell didn’t James let Bob catch and kill the rat?
First published on Facebook in February 2017