Clifford the Big Red Dog
2021, PG, 97 min. Directed by Walt Becker. Starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Tony Hale, Kenan Thompson, David Alan Grier.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Nov. 12, 2021
Clifford the Big Red Dog, the new live-action/CGI hybrid adaptation of the enormously popular children’s books first published in 1963, answers that all-encompassing question about the Scholastic icon: Just why is Clifford so big?
If you dig into the official Clifford canon, you’ll find that the answer lies in the first book. Clifford started small but grew to be so large because of the amount of love his owner Emily held for him. This holds true for the film, but with an added layer of actual magic in case that answer wasn’t good enough for you. Here, Clifford is discovered as a small puppy by Mr. Bridwell (the illustrious Cleese, whose character is named after Clifford creator Norman Bridwell himself), an eccentric custodian of various strange animals and creatures. He gives the young pup to Emily (Camp) when she and her uncle Casey (Whitehall) stumble upon his tent of wares, after placing a sort of spell on Clifford (for what purpose is a mystery). Soon enough, Emily’s love turns him into that iconic, mammoth canine.
Emily and Casey face a bevy of complications because of their new, towering master; the incredulous onlookers of New York that turn Clifford into a viral sensation are just the start. Emily and her mom may be facing eviction at the hands of their landlord Packard (Grier), who doesn’t even allow regular-sized pets, let alone this hulking monster. Then there’s genetic engineering mastermind Peter Tieran (Hale, always a pleasure to see) who kickstarts a manhunt to capture the mutt to use in his experiments, turning any protectors into fugitives. Clifford’s impact on the human populace is immeasurable. Everyone is at the chaotic whim of the biggest and reddest of dogs.
The original Clifford books, and even his television shows, were never particularly plot-heavy but were naturally episodic, so it makes sense that the studio comedy update of the franchise would try to give him the big Hollywood movie adventure he’s never had before. It’s not that what happens in the film doesn’t make sense; I’m sure if Clifford were real he would indeed be on the run from scientific corporations backed by police enforcement. And, for what it’s worth, it does try to incorporate themes and iconography from the books, such as Emily riding Clifford like a horse through the streets. It’s the translation from quaint drawings with uncomplicated stories to this over-plotted, garish-looking cluster of modern kids’ movie hallmarks that makes it lose any of its endearing qualities. This is full of manic plot threads constantly fighting each other, seemingly desperate to keep your attention. Unsurprisingly, it also mostly resorts to cheap gags and quips, with situations like Casey almost having to take Clifford’s temperature by putting the thermometer in the place that Kenan Thompson’s veterinarian character describes as rhyming with “nuthole." And don’t worry, you do get to see Clifford spray onlookers with piss (the MPA wasn’t kidding with its PG tag for “impolite humor”).
Watching this vaguely preternatural, shoddily animated interpretation of a beloved character parade around really makes you feel the disconnect between page and screen. Kids should be entertained by the slapstick at least, but by the time it gets to an on-the-lam Clifford being airlifted off an escape boat by a police helicopter, even they might be struck by how disinterested the film is in why this big dog has remained so big in the first place.