CAST: Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, David Alan Grier, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Russell Wong, Paul Rodriguez, Tony Hale, Russell Peters, Sienna Guillory, Kenan Thompson, Rosie Perez, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Bear Allen-Blaine
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins
BASICALLY…: A young girl (Camp) and her uncle (Whitehall) must look after a giant red puppy named Clifford…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
He’s appeared in 80 books, in addition to being the official mascot of renowned publishing firm Scholastic, and yet Clifford the Big Red Dog is still largely an obscure brand name outside the United States. Sure, we know exactly who he is just from looking at him – because what other gigantic crimson puppies are out there in children’s literature? – but his stories, his personality, and his overall appeal is not as widely known elsewhere in the world.
Maybe that’s where this new live-action/CGI hybrid adaptation is poised to fill in the gaps, and I’ll admit it certainly has some cute moments that children will go especially gooey-eyed over. However, it falls too hard into the same kind of trappings that kids movies of not just nowadays but from the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s, where it relies so much on lame sitcom humour and eye-rolling gross-out gags that it threatens to undo most of its cuteness.
Taking place in New York, we follow young Emily (Darby Camp) who is struggling to fit in at her snooty prep school, and even worse her incompetent uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) is looking after her while her mother (Sienna Guillory) is away for work. One day, after visiting a pop-up animal rescue centre run by a mysterious old man named Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), they end up bringing a tiny, red-coated puppy named Clifford home with them to their tiny apartment. However, they are shocked to find that Clifford has suddenly grown to the size of an elephant, yet still has the hyperactive energy of a puppy, meaning a whole bunch of wacky situations as Emily and Casey struggle to keep their gigantic new dog from getting into all sorts of trouble, and from the hands of a typically evil animal testing conglomerate run by Tony Hale’s CEO Zac.
Given that the movie is directed by Walt Becker, the guy who also did Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Old Dogs, it’s honestly amazing that Clifford the Big Red Dog doesn’t sink quite as low with its humour as those much worse movies (then again, he also directed Van Wilder: Party Liaison, and given what they do with dogs in that movie, I suppose we should be extra grateful they also didn’t go that route with this giant male puppy). There are definitely quite a few lowbrow gags throughout, including the obligatory bodily function jokes and one-liners about worrying when he has to go number two, but nowhere near as much as there could have been for a movie like this. You can easily sense that in parts of this script, there is an attempt to give this movie some heart and soul, with scenes of young Emily bonding with this adorable red (if unconvincingly CGI) puppy landing on some of the right emotional targets, and Clifford himself is certainly cute enough to entertain young kids with his antics
However, that isn’t to say that the movie completely avoids being that kind of stock family movie from aforementioned periods, and when it feels dated it really feels so. The vast majority of the movie is shot, written and performed like it’s a cheesy family sitcom, the kind that WandaVision would have paid homage to if it were real, with endless one-liners that seem to pause for audience laughter, and side-characters from Emily’s awkward school friend to Kenan Thompson’s vet that are only there to provide reaction shots and more stale laugh-track jokes. For very young kids, it’s probably all you need, but as an adult viewer it was never really succeeding at being particularly funny, while it’s delivering the most basic messages about acceptance and tolerance with a giant CGI puppy jumping around in the background.
It never got to a point where I was physically struggling to get through this movie (especially when I had seen a far worse one recently with Home Sweet Home Alone), but it’s definitely not a very good movie. It’s barely saved by the few moments of heart that it has, which give it a lesser hint of cynicism than most other family movies of this type, though it still hits enough of those familiar beats that just had me sitting there waiting for the next obvious joke to happen, and then the next, and so on. Again, though, it isn’t as bad as it could have been, which certainly counts for something, but if they were trying to aim for Paddington levels of emotion and wholesomeness, then unfortunately gags about smaller dogs wanting to sniff Clifford’s butthole simply aren’t going to cut it.
Very young kids will like it just fine, but for any parents or child-minders, maybe start looking into getting a cat instead.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Clifford the Big Red Dog is a mediocre family movie that isn’t as lowbrow as it easily could have been, but is still inundated with lame sitcom humour and gross-out gags that nearly overshadow its traces of heart.