"Clifford the Big Red Dog" stars Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, Kenan Thompson, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, and John Cleese. Released on November 10, 2021, the film is about a young girl who befriends a red puppy with an unusual growth spurt.
The film was directed by Walt Becker, who also directed films such as "Van Wilder", "Wild Hogs", and "Old Dogs". It is based on the children's book series of the same name by Norman Bridwell. Every child needs a four-legged companion in their life. However, when their only choice for a dog is as big as a house, it may be time to consider getting them a goldfish instead. This week brings us another family film whose heart matches the size of its red, furry canine. There's no doubt that I adored Clifford during my childhood. I remember reading the books during elementary school and watching the show on PBS Kids, along with its animated film adaptation, "Clifford's Really Big Movie", which served as its finale. There's also a recent Clifford show on Amazon Prime and PBS Kids, but I didn't bother with that one, unfortunately. This latest film from director Walt Becker sees the return of the adorable red dog and his owner with two first names in the form of a live-action/animated hybrid. It was supposed to be released in September as a theaters-only exclusive. However, Hollywood decided to release it in cinemas and on Paramount+ this month instead. Take a good guess as to why that happened. I chose to use Paramount+ to watch the film because I didn't feel like being surrounded by little kids in the theater today. With that said, let's see if this film is as huge and cute as the titular character himself.
The film centers on a 12-year-old girl named Emily Elizabeth Howard (Camp). She's living with her homeless uncle Casey (Whitehall) in New York while her mother (Guillory) is on a business trip in Chicago. She's also constantly bullied by her peers at a fancy private school because you can't have a family film without a few stuck-up brats picking on kids who are different. One day, Emily encounters an animal rescue tent run by Mr. Bridwell (Cleese), a kind man who introduces her to a tiny red puppy. After adopting the adorable puppy and naming it Clifford, Emily later discovers that it suddenly became gigantic. Clifford's antics in New York caught the attention of a genetics company known as Lifegro, owned by Zack Tiernan (Hale), who wants Clifford for the company's experiments. With Clifford's life at stake, Emily, Casey, and their young friend Owen Yu (Wang) attempt to protect the massive dog from Tiernan. Clifford has been known for causing innocent mishaps in his books and shows, and the film is unsurprisingly no exception. Instead of taking place on Birdwell Island like its source material, the film places the scenario in New York City. After all, nothing is more chaotic than the Big Apple. Most live-action/CGI hybrids based on popular franchises tend to entertain the young viewers but struggle to make specific adult viewers not want to bang their heads on the wall in sheer frustration. Mainly the films based on "Garfield" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks". "Clifford the Big Red Dog" has the ingredients to make it another example of that category, including the CGI animals and the kid-friendly humor. However, those ingredients managed to provide more tolerability rather than annoyance. It's far from a perfect family film regarding its story, but it delivers a cute and whimsical distraction for the young viewers. The film had a simple goal in mind: to create a harmless and modern take on the character for a new generation of fans while maintaining the qualities that made him unique in the first place. It's a challenge that could make or break the movie depending on people's expectations, similar to what "Alvin and the Chipmunks" went through with less-than-stellar results. As someone who grew up with the gigantic red canine, I thought Walt Becker and the crew managed to accomplish that goal. Now, as all of you are aware, Becker is a flawed filmmaker whose previous films hadn't been impressing his critics that much, with his worst-reviewed movie being 2009's "Old Dogs" with John Travolta and Robin Williams. That's why I'm surprised to see that "Clifford" may be his most tolerable film yet. Not by a lot, but it's something. The film got a bit too carried away with its sentimentality to the point where it's nothing but pure cheese. Luckily, it was saved by Walt Becker's ability to provide a nifty balance between silliness and heart. The film's cast also did all right in their roles, including the young Darby Camp as Emily Elizabeth. If her acting doesn't sell you, then I'm pretty sure her adorableness will. Jack Whitehall's attempt at delivering comedy as Casey was hit-and-miss in a couple of scenes, but his portrayal of the irresponsible uncle seeking redemption had a few bright spots that prevent him from being just a comedic punching bag for Clifford. John Cleese and Izaac Wang were also decent in their roles as Mr. Bridwell and Owen, respectively. Even though these actors phoned themselves in at times, they did what they could to deliver some enjoyability for their characters. Unfortunately, the one performance that I was disappointed with the most was Tony Hale. His role as Tieran was so generic and tame that it comes across as soul-crushing and even unbearable. I'm not sure if the direction was to blame, but I know that Hale wasn't that good in this film. Fun fact: Tony Hale previously worked with Walt Becker on "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip" in 2015. At least in that film, Hale was more interactive and funny. Yeah, I said it, and I'm not ashamed of it. Okay, maybe a little. As for the story itself, it's jam-packed with elements we've seen in other person/dog relationship movies before and plenty of dialogue that's so corny it made me hungry for some corn. If you're hoping for a fresh and bold take on this storyline, you won't be able to find it in "Clifford the Big Red Dog". But, if you happen to stick around and look past its cheesiness and CGI antics, there is a good chance that it'll put a big smile on your face. Thanks to Becker's execution and the film's beautiful messages, the plot injected some charm and adorableness into its sentimental mediocrity. Not only is it a pleasant and harmless celebration of people's differences, but it's also a proper learning tool to teach kids to love big and stand up for themselves, even if the story wasn't as hugely thoughtful as its themes. I think these kids will walk out of this film feeling more appreciated by their differences, just like Emily and Clifford.
Overall, "Clifford the Big Red Dog" is an inoffensive and silly treat for families, although it may be a bit too huge for its sentimentality to handle. The film safely lands on the green part of the tolerability scale due to its cast, charm, and Becker's direction. However, its formulaic plot, corny dialogue, and Hale's performance may make specific people think twice before adopting this lovable red puppy. It's not the best family film I've seen this year, but it does serve as an acceptable diversion for the kids until "Encanto" comes out later this month. If you also enjoyed Clifford growing up, then you might like the film as well, more so than I did. Just don't expect anything more out of this flawed piece of adorable fluff.