Movie Review: “Clifford the Big Red Dog”

As I have said before (as have many others), movies are magic. Movies have the ability to transfer us to a new world, to show us new and amazing things about our world, to offer up stories of heartbreak and laughter and love and so many other things that go either far beyond our dreams or deep within them. We want to watch and be amazed or be touched or consider something in a whole new way.

Through that lens, one would have to call “Clifford the Big Red Dog” a disappointment. However, that doesn’t feel like the intent of the film. The goal here seems to be to make young children laugh, to have enough famous actors in small roles to keep parents amused, and to generally be inoffensive (save the occasional slobber and smell jokes). Through that lens, the movie succeeds.

In order to accomplish the task set before him, director Walt Becker puts Darby Camp front and center as Emily. Smart and funny, Emily is a 12-year-old struggling to find her place at a ritzy private school in Manhattan after she and her mother, Maggie (Sienna Guillory), move there because… well, no full reason is given.

Simply put, this isn’t that kind of movie; the kind where reasons and rationality have a place. This is a movie where things happen and you just have to go with it. That should be pretty clear early on when, with Maggie on a business trip, Emily and her Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) stumble upon a magical tent full of pets up for adoption. Run by Bridwell (John Cleese), the entire setup is, from a parent’s perspective, creepy and off-putting, but from a child’s, rather wonderful. Although they don’t get Clifford the tiny puppy from Bridwell at that point, the dog mysteriously ends up in her backpack that evening because… well, no reason is given.

But of course a reason is understood – it’s magic. Clifford is there because he needs her as much as she needs him and Bridwell knew that and magic-ed the dog into the backpack. By the next morning Clifford is huge (full of Emily’s love), and everything comes crashing down around Casey and Emily as having a massive dog running around New York City isn’t easy.

From this early point forward, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a series of shenanigans that feel as though they could have been generated by just about anyone. You get the question of what happens when the super of the no-dogs-allowed apartment building comes by to fix the dishwasher and Clifford is there. You get the question of what would happen if Clifford followed Emily to school. You get the question of how a vet respond to Clifford. How a businessman (Tony Hale) who has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into solving the problem of world hunger for his own nefarious purposes (which are never stated) would deal with knowing Clifford exists.

That last one obviously doesn’t fit the mold, but that’s okay, it doesn’t really fit the movie either. Certainly it ups the stakes somewhat, but not hugely, as Emily and Maggie are already in danger of losing their apartment and Clifford has already shown that it might not be a great idea to keep him around the neighborhood. Maybe this millionaire subplot is there, in part, because Tony Hale would take the role and he’s an enjoyable not-terribly-threatening villain. Undoubtedly Hale makes a good addition to a movie that already features appearances by David Alan Grier, Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Peters, Kenan Thompson, Tovah Feldshuh, and Rosie Perez. None of those actors are strictly necessary, but like Hale they put a smile on one’s face when they appear. Each and every one seems happy to be there and giving it their all in an attempt to drag this movie across the feature-length mark without making parents too mad. They succeed.

The cast is certainly better than the dog himself. We all know that there is no such dog as Clifford, that the dog has to be computer generated, but unfortunately, very often he looks computer generated. He looks fake. The actors do their best to make it appear as though they’re interacting with a live four-legged creature, but even when he’s small, Clifford never seems real.

Were I writing some sort of snide review I would suggest that maybe Emily’s love wasn’t big enough, but that’s not what this is or who I am. The movie is very much aimed towards a younger crowd, one which will be more accepting of Clifford’s clearly CG-not-actually-there presence. That crowd will delight at the dog slobber that ends up on Emily’s friend, Owen (Izaac Wang), as he tries to help save the oversized puppy, and just about everywhere else.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” is utterly forgettable and completely inoffensive. Perhaps when some child convinces their parents to watch the movie for the 90th day in a row the adult will grow to hate it, but short of that, it’s just a series of marginally goofy moments that might just tickle your funny bone once or twice. It’s not going to set the world on fire, even if one assumes Clifford will accidentally do that to the apartment down the line, but maybe that’s okay.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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