I’ll probably never be convinced a true and clear-cut audience exists for feature-length adaptations of children’s storybooks, since they necessarily abandon so much about the format that made them popular with children, adding tons of extraneous narrative nonsense. (Not you, though, dear Paddington films.) Thus, I watched Clifford the Big Red Dog with the innate understanding that I wasn’t an ideal target for director Walt Becker’s live-action and CGI hybrid take on Norman Bridwell’s beloved and colorful pup. And while Clifford certainly isn’t a revolutionary mold-breaker, it isn’t driven by such goals, and instead aims to present viewers with the same kinds of rollicking and disbelief-suspending adventures as the source material. In that way, Clifford the Big Red Dog deserves a big bowl of treats.
Set amongst the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, Clifford the Big Red Dog easily could have tried to jam the central canine into an overly stuffed and highly destructive plotline as other youth-skewing films do. However, screenwriters Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway deliver a tale that was slightly more believably larger-than-life, with an abundantly clear line between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” And if we’re being big, red, and frank here, Tony Hale’s antagonist generally has a bizarrely more noble cause than most of the characters we’re meant to be rooting for.
Jack Whitehall and Darby Camp’s Casey earn their stripes as a dog-saving duo.
While one’s mileage will vary when it comes to the relative simplicity of Clifford the Big Red Dog’s central plot, it definitely hearkens back to the classic stories and allows for more character moments that aren’t dedicated to laying out plot mechanics. Jack Whitehall’s Casey is the lovably lazy uncle to Darby Camp’s bright-eyed middle-schooler Emily, and he’s not exactly a perfect choice to serve as Emily’s guardian after his sister, Darby’s mom (Sienna Guillory), has to leave town for a work trip. And you know what that means! At least, you probably do if you read the title of the movie.
Upon visiting a unique pop-up animal exhibit run by a vaguely mystical chap named Mr. Birdwell (John Cleese), Casey and Emily come face to then-tiny face with the vibrantly red dog that will soon upend their lives in every way. And then, sure enough, their lives are upended in every way after Clifford appears in Emily’s bedroom, several orders of magnitude larger than he was the day prior. While there isn’t a perfect scale for how one should judge fictional characters’ reactions and relationships to startlingly large blood-colored animals, Jack Whitehall and Darby Camp do a solid job of balancing smaller-stakes stress and hijinks with the spectacle of having a giant, adorable furball around that loves some good nuzzling and furniture-smashing.
Clifford is a super-light turn for both lead actors, though this year’s Jungle Cruise did a good job setting UK comedian Jack Whitehall up to lead his own family-friendly film. (One of the movie’s most amusing gags involves the American Casey using his “fake” British accent.) It’s not easy to pull off successfully silly physical comedy in a movie co-starring a Monty Python co-founder, but there’s an all-too-brief food fight scene that’ll likely be a highlight for younger viewers, and those as shamelessly young-at-heart as yours truly. Meanwhile, Darby Camp has proven her multi-genre talents with darker projects like Big Little Lies and NOS4A2 balanced with Netflix’s Christmas Chronicles movies and 2018’s four-legged family film Benji, and her performance in Clifford the Big Red Dog doesn’t buck that trend.
John Cleese and David Alan Grier highlight a stellar supporting cast.
You can’t have an NYC movie without an NYC-worthy ensemble, and Clifford the Big Red Dog does indeed have a kennel full of impressive co-stars. Arguably more than anyone else, Tony Hale’s ego-maniacal CEO Zack Tieran is very clearly a character in a movie with oodles of perceived deviousness, even though his company LyfeGrow is more or less dedicated to making life better through science. And it certainly seems villainous to all the other characters that Tieran wants to study Clifford’s unique genetics. But it’s one of the film’s left-field joys that Hale’s knowledge-progressing character is more of a wacky obstacle for Team Clifford’s faith and quasi-magic, rather than something more purely tyrannical and evil.
When it comes to everybody else populating this film’s universe, it’s a revolving door of talent. The aforementioned John Cleese delivers eye twinkles with witty wordplay as the story’s stand-in for the author, and like literally everyone else mentioned after this, the film could use another three or four scenes with his character. Saturday Night Live mainstay Kenan Thompson, who factors heavily into previews, is aces in his fleeting scenes as a bewildered veterinarian, and David Alan Grier’s disgruntled apartment superintendent should get his own series of shorts on Paramount+ as a tie-in. Other established comic actors trying to save Clifford from falling into (and presumably crushing) the wrong hands include the stellar trio of Paul Rodriguez, Horatio Sanz and Russell Peters.
If we’re talking scene-stealers, though, look no further than Good Boys and Raya and the Last Dragon’s Izaac Wang as Emily’s infatuated friend Owen. Basically, I wish every kids’ movie had Izaac Wang in it.
Clifford The Big Red Dog gloriously avoids certain children’s movie tropes.
As solid as the cast is, and for all that I can champion the film embracing its genre with all four legs, Clifford the Big Red Dog‘s core story admittedly isn’t a huge draw for older viewers like myself. The whole “let’s impossibly try to keep a big secret safe until everything falls apart” thrust is an industry standard at this point, and the beats are as predictable as can be. The most unpredictable thing, possibly, was the lack of go-to tropes that are utilized in virtually ever other movie aimed at younger audiences.
First, there is a startling lack of potty humor. Save for one obvious splash of a sequence involving Clifford going number one, which includes a poop joke, Clifford the Big Red Dog arguably deserves some kind of medal for not just setting up 90 minutes worth of gags involving dog farts and giant poo piles. Director Walt Becker also helmed the latest Chipmunks sequel, as well as Old Hogs and Wild Dogs, so he’s certainly no stranger to broad bathroom humor. But with Clifford, restraint is shown, and it is appreciated.
Second, children’s fare will often lazily shoehorn romantic side-stories for its adult characters when there isn’t anything more substantial for them to deal with. And Jack Whitehall’s Casey is a poster man-child for a plotline involving a romantic suitor turning his personality around. Instead of wasting time on such superfluousness, though, Clifford the Big Red Dog keeps the focus on Casey and Emily’s familial relationship, and it’s all the better for it. (That said, Owen’s puppy-dog love for Emily is exceedingly adorable, and gets an easy pass.)
By and large (and red), Clifford the Big Red Dog is going to please kids more than it pleases adults, and that’s by design. But by eliminating some of the worst tropes in modern kids’ movies, while filling the screen with enjoyable and amicable actors, this family comedy should have audiences wagging their metaphorical tails while sniffing around for sequel news.