‘Clifford The Big Red Dog’ Review: A Dopey Mess & Kids Will Probably Love It

It’s important to acknowledge one’s pre-existing biases in criticism, so here goes: I’ve never really cottoned to Clifford the Big Red Dog. It’s always struck me as one of the most inexplicable of popular children’s properties – so it’s a dog, and it’s red, and it’s big. Kind of a one-note thing, really, and Norman Bridwell’s books (and the various cartoons and other media inspired by it) mostly just coast on the premise. There’s even a two-season cartoon called “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” which seems to offer even less to hang on to. If Clifford’s a puppy, he’s not even big! Just a red dog! Who cares! But I digress.

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Walt Becker’s new Clifford feature – titled, unsurprisingly, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” – doesn’t exactly take the franchise in bold new directions, aside from the inclusion of a fair amount of bodily function humor. The primary inspiration of the screenplay (by Jay ScherickDavid Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway) is to plop Clifford and his person, Emily (Darby Camp) into New York City; it’s a live-action world, though Clifford is a computer-animated dog, which fills the whole enterprise with unfortunate echoes of the “Tom & Jerry” movie from earlier this year.

As with that film, director Becker (who somehow went from adult-oriented raunch comedies like “Van Wilder” and “Buying the Cow” to the likes of this and the last “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie) makes the fatal mistake of spending entirely too much time on the human characters, as if that’s what anyone is there to see. Emily is introduced as a new girl from upstate, an outcast in her elite private school, where the obligatory Mean Girl character calls her “Food Stamp” because she’s on scholarship (by this way, this was the basic set-up for the kid character in “My Spy” as well). 

Her mother (Sienna Guillory) advises her just to be herself, but Emily is reluctant: “I’m not as brave as you. I don’t want to stand out.” Alas, mom can only offer up that pearl of wisdom before disappearing on a business trip for the bulk of the story, leaving Emily in the care of Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), a loveable (?) loser who says things like “In the morning?” when told to drop Emily at school at 7:45.

What does all of this have to do with a giant cherry-colored canine, you might ask, not unreasonably? Well, on their way to school, Emily and Casey pop into the animal rescue tent of one Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese, twinkling as much as a bitter 82-year-old transphobe presumably can), who introduces her to the red puppy. Emily wants to keep him; “He’s so tiny; how big could he get?” she asks Uncle Casey, hohoho. But Mr. Bridwell says how big the pup gets depends on how much love he gets, so after the first night of sleeping next to her, he’s about half the size of her room.

And so we finally get to what we’ve come to see: an enormous red dog wreaking havoc. There are, it should be noted, a couple of inspired gags, and a great many more involving urine and farts and butts, which kids of a certain age certainly enjoy, though typically kids older than the “Clifford” target audience, no? (Maybe they’re going for a multi-quadrant hit.) Credit is due to one genuinely great sequence, a reasonably rousing climax that finds Emily riding Clifford like a horse across the Manhattan Bridge.

But the filmmaker grafts on a clumsy plot with Tony Hale as a gentle-voice tech billionaire villain who tries to steal Clifford away from Emily, which means she eventually has to learn to stand up for herself and protect what’s important to her and give a big speech where she makes big proclamations like “I know what it’s like not to fit in” and “Just because you’re different doesn’t mean it’s okay to be bullied” and “It’s not okay to take him away, just because he’s big and red,” and the crowd goes wild. It’s pretty hokey, but to be fair, it’s also a “Clifford the Big Red Dog” movie.

Several comedians pop up in cameos doing the best they can; besides Cleese and Hale, we get brief appearances by David Alan GrierKeenan ThompsonRussell PetersSiobhan Fallon HoganPaul Rodriguez, and (oh dearHoratio Sanz. Such stunt casting presumably exists to entertain parents, without much success – there’s not much here for anyone over 10 to focus on, aside from how strange it is that the puppy Clifford looks so much more fake than the giant one. John Debney’s pushy, non-stop score works overtime to assure us how mirthful it all is, but it comes off as sweaty and desperate. 

Yet that target audience must be acknowledged; they make for much less picky viewers than this one. I watched “Clifford the Big Red Dog” with my almost-five-year-old, who told me afterward that “I liked it,” that her favorite parts where “when Clifford was at the parts,” and who requested, “Tomorrow let’s watch ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ again,” but with her sister. That’s the audience they’re hoping to please here, so mission accomplished. As for their parents, well, go with God. [C-]

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