Movie Review: ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ is A Big Red Disaster
Director: Walt Becker
Writer: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway
Stars: Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Izaac Wang, Russell Wong, Kenan Thompson, John Cleese, and Russell Peters.
Synopsis: A young girl’s love for a tiny puppy named Clifford makes the dog grow to an enormous size.
Let’s be real, here: a live-action adaptation of Norman Bridwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog was never going to work. You can’t make his lovable personality and charming demeanor appear convincing through CGI. You also need to make him talk, which was part of the charm that made the 2000 TV show so great and Clifford such an infectious character. Remove that and you transform the most loving big red dog there is into a terrifying family-friendly version of Godzilla with dated jokes harkening back to late 1990s and early 2000s Disney movies.
Godzilla seems like an overblown comparison here, but I’m not joking. A supposedly playful scene in which the CGI Clifford sees a man playing with an inflatable bumper ball and chases him down until the dog literally deflates the ball, likely severely injuring the man, isn’t funny or paints Clifford as a “charming” and infectiously lovable dog. Instead, it represents Clifford as a Them!-like creature that needs to be eradicated before it destroys the entire city. It’s a terrible thing to think while watching a family movie, but the filmmakers quickly tarnish anything Norman Bridwell established in his series of books, while also leaving fans of the original TV show with a bad taste in their mouths.
Clifford was never about bodily humor or fast-paced slapstick, but this movie is only filled with the lowest forms of humor imaginable. Jack Whitehall’s Uncle Casey gets hit by Clifford’s tail, peed, and sneezed on in more ways than one. It seems too interested in developing extended sequences of unfunny slapstick by taking advantage of Clifford’s “big red” size, instead of celebrating what Clifford’s truly all about: friendship and love. Yeah, sure, there’s a hackneyed message about “if a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live” during the end, but that love isn’t felt, nor seen through Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp)’s relationship with Clifford.
Our main protagonist uses Clifford as a conduit for the love she has for him and hopes she will never be rejected by her peers at school again, and because of this, the puppy grows to a larger-than-life-size. After that quasi-poignant moment, the movie sacrifices any form of emotional levity it had for pure slapstick. Emily and Casey will chase Clifford on the streets of New York, while Zack Tieran, owner of Lifegro (Tony Hale) is looking for the dog for…reasons involving genetic mutation. In an absolutely inane turn of events, Tieran then bribes the NYPD and Clifford now becomes a fugitive from the LAW who must now go into HIDING in the hopes that the police and Lifegro don’t catch him.
Was Clifford becoming a fugitive from the POLICE ever in Norman Bridwell’s book? Of course not! Was a group of mutated goats and sheep tackling bodyguards and the NYPD ever part of the Clifford canon? Never, so why is this movie so obsessed by veering off Bridwell’s messages of love and friendship in favor of a family-friendly version of Godzilla, with an aesthetic that feels plucked straight out of Disney’s horrible adaptation of Inspector Gadget? I have no idea, but it’s definitely not the Clifford movie that should’ve been made.
It’s a good thing, though, that the CGI doesn’t look as unconvincing as the trailers made it out to be. It’s not as detailed as, say Peter Rabbit, but I believed that Clifford was a living, breathing animal during the entire runtime, save for his puppy scenes. The CGI is a bit “too CGI” during those sequences, but it becomes more palatable once the animal grows. The acting isn’t terrible too. Darby Camp gives a rather impassioned performance as Emily Elizabeth, and shares two great scenes with John Cleese’s Mr. Bridwell, an obvious nod to the author of Clifford, though I wonder what the real-life Bridwell would think of this movie. All other acting talents, while decent, are wasted either through limited screen time or a weak screenplay that never wants to exploit the actors’ strengths. I’m mostly looking at Jack Whitehall who becomes the literal punching bag for Clifford and all of the strangely violent slapstick that ensues in this movie.
The last Clifford film, Clifford’s Really Big Movie, wasn’t great, but it at least understood the source material it was adapting itself from and respected Norman Bridwell’s legacy. The new Clifford movie does not do any of that. It’s rather a slapstick-fueled nightmare filled with unfunny jokes, a predictable protagonist arc, and a story so insane your jaw will literally drop in utter disbelief. Even describing it now doesn’t do justice to how completely preposterous the entire movie is.
Initially, the movie was supposed to premiere at TIFF. Unfortunately, due to the Delta Variant of COVID-19, the movie was delayed indefinitely, thus stripping a (potential) midnight madness audience of its chance to see it on the biggest screen imaginable. And even if Clifford the Big Red Dog completely disregards Norman Bridwell’s charming and lovable titular character to make physical jokes about the dog’s size and transform it into a purely unhinged Creature Feature, it must be seen to be believed and will definitely be added to the canon of weird CGI-driven family films like Peter Rabbit, Sonic the Hedgehog and the oddity of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. And if that doesn’t convince you to turn on Paramount+ (or see it on the biggest screen you can find) and watch it, then I don’t know what will.