When I was a kid, one of the books I loved to read were the Clifford books by the late Norman Bridwell. The idea of a giant red dog fascinated me to the point where I believed anything was possible. I am sure that at one point, I wished I had a dog like Clifford. As big and clumsy as he was, Clifford was always there to help and just like any other dog, he remained loyal to his owner, a little girl named Emily Elizabeth, who loved him just as much. Walt Becker’s live-action adaptation seems to show this lovable canine as nothing more than a bumbling accident-prone buffoon reminiscent of Marley & Me‘s pooch; it seems to be a common trope in live-action dog-centered family-comedies, and writers Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway seemed to do their homework. Though I feel, with each other live-action adaptation of a popular children’s character, I feel like I have seen this type of film before. You have fart-and-poop jokes, a human character that can’t stand the mischief of the animal, a villain with a cunning plan. The formula is all there.
The kids couldn’t care less! They will no doubt enjoy the slapstick and dorky humor on display. Parents may be glad to oblige, especially those who have the fond nostalgia for the Scholastic book series that showed up in their elementary schools. It’s a cute, harmless movie meant to appeal to the child in all of us. Its heart wants to be as big as its dog; it seems to be in the right place. I guess a giant CG dog will just have to suffice for 93 minutes.
As a character, Clifford is adorable. How can you not love the sight of this red-plastered creation, along with its cute puppy-dog face? You could easily look past the obvious animation and welcome it (unlike the bulgy-animation of this year’s Tom & Jerry). The actors work with what they can, reacting as they should, comedically-awkward as they come off. Kenan Thompson even makes an appearance as a vet that has a hard time dealing with Clifford’s size in one scene that tries for the most laughs. Its two major players come in the form of Jack Whitehall and Darby Camp (who you may recognize from The Christmas Chronicles) who make some of the funny moments work, even sharing some heartfelt moments. Camp plays Emily, who attends a private school where she is constantly made fun of for being poor, as she wishes for a friend. While Whitehall plays her uncle Casey who is tasked with babysitting Emily while her mother (Sienna Guillory) is on a business trip. One day, they see an Animal Rescue Shelter tent, which Emily excitedly wants to check out; the inside filled with the curious of animals and a hint of magic. The man running the place is the kind-hearted, albeit mysterious, Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) who introduces Clifford to the two. Though, he isn’t as big as we expect. He is but a tiny puppy. Of course, Clifford comes home with Emily and Casey. By the next morning, Clifford has grown to a big size. Apparently, the reason he is so big boils down to how much Emily loves Clifford. The rest of the movie is Emily and Casey trying to keep Clifford at bay while the dog becomes a sensation, which ends up capturing the attention of the owner of a genetics company (Tony Hale) as he sets out to take Clifford for testing.
Now that the pieces are in place, it is easy to tell where Clifford the Big Red Dog is going. Each stop to showcase some type of danger or excitement is figured out. As someone who clamors to live-action cartoons, even I am getting a little tired of the predictability that these films have to show. When done right, a film like this could be pretty special. Paddington had the same elements, yet its heart was bigger than its laughs. The charm was never truly sacrificed for the sake of entertaining children. It was a wholesome experience that parents could share with their kids. Clifford the Big Red Dog instead serves the purpose of making kids laugh while their parents sit there soaking in the material.