Special Guest Writer: Benjamin Price of KIDS FIRST! (@bennylovesfilms)
Clifford the Big Red Dog is nearing his 50th birthday. The cute and clumsy children’s book canine is the face of a TV show, stickers, clothing, toys galore–all spawned from the escapades of one big red dog who now heads to the big screen in his first live-action feature. Clifford the Big Red Dog, from director Walt Becker, delivers impressive visual effects, entertaining performances, and numerous attempts to tug on your heartstrings, but ultimately feels like there’s not enough heart put into it.
Based on the beloved books by Norman Bridwell, Clifford the Big Red Dog focuses less on the titular pet and more on Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) a bullied preteen left in the care of her irresponsible Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) while her mother is away for work. On the way to school, Emily and Casey wander into a tent run by eccentric zookeeper Mr. Bridwell, named for Clifford’s real-life creator and played by John Cleese. Of course Emily can’t keep the scarlet puppy they find there, but a series of serendipitous circumstances deposits the dog in Emily’s apartment. That’s when Emily names him Clifford and wishes that he were big and strong so that he could be safe from the rest of the world. The next morning, her wish has come true and her dog can now barely fit into her room. From there, Emily and her uncle search for a place for Clifford to call home, while a genetics company called Lifegrow tries to capture him to find the key to supersizing the world’s food supply.
The special effects team has done an admirable job integrating the digital big dog into the world around him. And as for his look, they find the right balance between the Clifford of the books and the risk in trying to visualize a life-like version of a dog of his size. After the eerie failures in onscreen incarnations of Cats and early glimpses at Sonic the Hedgehog, the look of these digital characters is everything. While Clifford can seem at times like he’s a few movies away from going head to head with some junior kaiju, the filmmakers made the right visual calls in retaining what made the character appealing. He’s adorable, in both forms big and small.
Jack Whitehall as Uncle Casey is trying to reform himself into a more mature voice of reason and is pulled every which way by the exploits of Clifford and Emily, but he still commits to the oft-goofy mannerisms and expressions demanded by the character. The suitably kooky Tony Hale plays the exacting head of the genetics corporation on Clifford’s tail, but his talents are underutilized. You can tell that Hale relished getting to play villainy this big and loud even if the movie doesn’t give him nearly enough opportunity. The depth of talent in the rest of the supporting cast sneaks up on you. Horatio Sanz plays the owner of a deli in Emily’s neighborhood, Alex Moffat plays a scientist at Lifegrow, and Kenan Thompson and Rosie Perez pop up in the veterinarian’s office that Casey and Emily consult about Clifford’s sudden growth.
Director Walt Becker, long after the raunch of Van Wilder, has positioned himself as a maestro of middle-of-the-road family entertainment with reliable watches like Old Dogs and the Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. Clifford the Big Red Dog is a passably entertaining family film: it clocks in at just around 90 minutes, it’s not rampant with “how did that get into a kids movie?” moments that make parents cringe, nor an abundance of awkward appeals to make Clifford current. You’ve seen this story before of the unbreakable bond forged between a creature, on the loose and the run, and their human counterpart, you’ll see it again in Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is in theaters and on Paramount+ November 10th.