THE STORY – When Emily Elizabeth meets a magical animal rescuer who gives her a little red puppy, she never anticipated waking up to find a giant, 10-foot hound in her small New York City apartment. With her single mother away on business, Emily and her fun but impulsive uncle set out on an adventure that takes a bite out of the Big Apple.
THE CAST – Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Kenan Thompson, Russell Wong & John Cleese
THE TEAM – Walt Becker (Director), Jay Scherick, David Ronn & Blaise Hemingway (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
A live-action family film based on the children’s book of the same name by Norman Bridwell and directed by Walt Becker, the filmmaker who has previously given us movies such as “Van Wilder,” “Wild Hogs,” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.” This is “Clifford The Big Red Dog,” and in all seriousness, I’m not sure why anyone was expecting this to be any better than those middle-of-the-road comedies I just mentioned. What Becker does get right is making a feel-good, light-hearted, and wholesome movie for children that will appeal to younger demographics (probably ages 4-9) but for all of those adults who will be forced to endure the same movie when taking their kid to the cinema or watching at home on Paramount+, I’m sorry, this one is not for us.
“Clifford The Big Red Dog” tells the simple story of two lost souls in modern-day Manhattan who find each other through magic and love. Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp) is a 12-year-old sixth-grader who is constantly being bullied by the other girls in school (for being a good student?) and lives with her single paralegal mother (Sienna Guillory) in Harlem. When Emily’s mother needs to go out of town on business, she reaches out to her inept yet good-hearted brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to watch her daughter. Casey is down on his luck, living out of his truck and in between apartments but has aspirations to be an illustrator someday. He may not be the most responsible adult in Emily’s life, but he still loves her and desperately wants both her and his sister’s approval.
One day on their way to school, Emily sees an animal rescue tent run by the magical Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), an eccentric older man who rocks a colorful bow tie and exudes a warm charm with a twinkle in his eye. It’s here where Emily meets a fully CGI puppy Clifford. Entirely red and sad over being separated from his family, Clifford instantly takes a liking to Emily and sneaks his way back to her home after her Uncle Casey disapproves of bringing the dog home. Forced to take him back to Mr. Bridwell the following day, Emily makes a wish to Clifford while gently holding him, “I wish you were big and strong, and then the world couldn’t hurt us.” A single tear falls from her cheek and onto Clifford’s tiny body, and thus, a magical miracle occurs.
The next morning, Clifford has grown to a tremendous size, larger than Emily’s apartment can handle. Casey and Emily try their best to keep Clifford a secret from Emily’s landlord (David Alan Grier), who disapproves of pets and everyone else in the city, but when you have a giant 10-foot red dog running around the streets of Manhattan, people are bound to notice. One of those people is Lyfegro owner Peter Tieran (Tony Hale), a ruthless businessman who is trying to grow food genetically and feels Clifford may be the key to the company’s success. With Lyfegro’s men and the local authorities after them, Casey, Emily, Clifford, Emily’s one friend from school, Owen Yu (Izaac Wang), must find Mr. Bridwell to see if he can revert Clifford back to his previous size.
For its intended target audience, “Clifford The Big Red Dog” checks off all necessary boxes to make a sweet children’s film. It’s wholesome, funny, and incredibly light in tone. Clifford is brought to life fully by CGI, and there are times when his innate cuteness shines through, but there are other distracting moments, such as when Emily rides Clifford in the film’s third act, where the visual effects work be wildly inconsistent. Clifford can understand and react to Emily, giving him a personality that couldn’t be fully captured by photographing a live-action dog and using CGI to increase his size, so I understand why Clifford is animated the way he is for the purposes of this movie.
Camp’s performance is sincere enough to give the film its beating through the relationship she shares with Clifford. While no one necessarily gives a great performance, Becker ensures that they’re all operating in the same register for tone, so no one sticks out like a sore thumb from everyone else. Jack Whitehall’s overly exaggerated performance is in line with any number of the numerous SNL cast or comedian appearances we receive in this movie, including Paul Rodriguez as a bodega owner, Russell Peters as Emily’s magician neighbor, and Kenan Thompson as a veterinarian. Many of the town locals in Harlem get involved in Emily’s journey in ridiculously outrageous ways as they fight off Lyfegro agents with poor choreography, cheesy one-liners, and little to zero logic as to how or why they’re involved in the plot other than the filmmakers wanted to add a bit of representation to the cast, considering the story takes place in one of the most diverse cities in the world.
While there is diversity in the casting of “Clifford The Big Red Dog,” how that is portrayed on screen is highly distracting and problematic as stereotype jokes are plentiful (having Emily’s Asian friend Owen shout, “Ahh! It’s Dogzilla!” at Clifford being one of many). When Emily makes a passionate plea to the people of New York City towards the end of the film, many of whom are not white, about how she knows what it’s like to be different, it may be sending a lovely message to younger audiences on acceptance and tolerance but rings hollow for adult audiences who know better than to see a white character preaching on such a subject.
“Clifford The Big Red Dog” contains an abundance of broad humor. Yes, there is butt sniffing and characters getting peed on by Clifford but will all of this appeal to younger kids? Probably. Is “Clifford The Big Red Dog” the cinematic masterpiece people were (seriously or not) hoping for along the lines of “Paddington” when they saw it was announced to originally premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival? Sadly not. It may contain a big dog with a big heart, but it lacks big brains, thus making it a family film that will not work for the whole family.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Will work for younger audiences who are charmed by Clifford’s personality, animation and big red cuteness.
THE OSCARS – None
THE FINAL SCORE – 3/10