‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’- Film Review

What’s the Story: In the hustle and bustle of New York City, 12-year-old Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) isn’t having the best time trying not to struggle with middle school. So when her mom has to go out of town for business, she’s in the care of her irresponsible and jobless uncle Casey (Jack Whitewall). A visit to a pet rescue tent run by the magical animal rescuer Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) leads to Emily discovering a tiny, red pup where she names him Clifford. Then overnight, with the power of love, her new best friend is less small and more ten feet tall in her apartment, which attracts the attention of a genetics company.

Typically, I try to watch anything I can with the free time I have, but why did I decide to watch the latest family flick, Clifford the Big Red Dog? One reason is that was a good excuse to sign back into Paramount+ in a few months, and there wasn’t a point in going out of my way to see this at the movies. However, the idea of a live-action movie of the titular dog wouldn’t sound bad if it came out a decade ago. As a kid, I remembered reading the Norman Bridwell Scholastics books from the library and watching the original PBS Kids series with the late, great John Ritter voicing Clifford. Another movie based on a series of children’s books/cartoons is rarely good nowadays, even though the year is meant to be viewed by kids. The low expectations were brought in when the trailer dropped, already proving to stick to the basic formula. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t enough to care too much about this for its 96 minutes. 

Adults should already know this wasn’t exactly going to generate Best Picture buzz since this merely exists for the enjoyment of little kids wanting to see a giant red dog. They will have loads of fun imagining the kinds of adventures they’ll think of if they have a pet of enormous size. But wouldn’t this be better suited as an animated movie instead of having human actors trying to interact with a CGI animal? That might help this be more tolerable. This wasn’t a good sign when director Walt Becker is responsible not only for Wild Hogs and Old Dogs, but I didn’t know until a few days ago he did Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (the worse out of all of them), along with the writers of a few stinkers. This felt like an adaptation that was more like a dumb sitcom rather than an actual movie that wanted to stay true to what made the books beloved in the first place. 

Darby Camp gave a good performance as Emily Elizabeth. She gets the job done of being a sympathetic kid trying to fit in and find the odd companionship when she finds herself forming a connection with Clifford since they both need each other. And that relationship that develops with Clifford and Emily Elizabeth gives the heart it deserves when it wants to, and those moments were well earned, honestly; if only it were in a better movie, that’s not this. You can clearly tell Clifford is just a CGI puppy that’s okay in parts and fake at others. Plus, the decision to not make him talk was a smart idea since that would’ve been too scary to witness. Whitehall as Emily’s uncle, Casey, plays what you expect for an irresponsible person to take care of a child. Besides those two, every other human character is never interesting whenever it wants to focus on them.

But with these kinds of family movies involving all sorts of animals, it’s always the story that’s less engaging. Not that the target audience will care too much, but this needed to be more compelling. Because there’s no reason to have Tony Hale wasting his talents as the villain Peter Tieran, who wants to kidnap Clifford to help change his genetics company for the absolute best. It does have a message about loving somebody who’s quite unique some will get behind. This is nothing we haven’t seen before, but no worse than what’s come out earlier. Also, you better believe there’s a ton of jokes that fall entirely flat. I laughed once, in which it involves barricading the door of a bodega. You already know the hijinks Clifford will get into a mile away with situations that are so unoriginal. And yes, not only is there a scene where he’s peeing on a tree like a fire hydrant, spraying a little on Casey in the process to get those low-brow humor in for the children, I bet one of the writers really wanted the moment the pitbull wanted to sniff Clifford’s big butt for all to see. Ain’t that comedy.

Right around the third act will be when most will stop caring what’s going on since it was on the path of predictability, although the way they showed Emily Elizabeth riding on top of Clifford running around New York looked pretty bad. But seriously, what’s with lousy family movies taking place in NYC? And the more I thought about it; I wished there was more efficiency on Clifford as the focus.

In the end, Clifford the Big Red Dog will appeal more towards kids since it’s cute and all, but this isn’t different from any other family movie we’ve seen. Does it have heart? Indeed. Still, though, it consists of your typical lame jokes and predictable plot to pass the time. It’s pretty funny how this was panned to premiere at TIFF and held initially onto it because of the Delta Variant. Now it’s the last movie from Paramount released this year. It seems like they knew this had the most quality out of the other blockbusters meant to come out around this time. Just chalk this one up as another children’s movie I couldn’t care less about when Beethoven and Stuart Little exist. 

Grade: C-

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