Clifford the Big Red Dog, 2021.
Directed by Walt Becker.
Starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Tony Hale, Paul Rodríguez, Horatio Sanz, Sienna Guillory, Rosie Perez, Kenan Thompson, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Russell Wong, Karen Lynn Gorney, Melanie Chandra, Russell Peters, David Alan Grier, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan.
A young girl’s love for a tiny puppy named Clifford makes the dog grow to an enormous size.
Lest one goes into Clifford the Big Red Dog under the impression that the titular flamin’ hot colored and unruly dog will be the only oddity on-screen during director Walt Becker’s adaptation of the Scholastic books, it’s notable to mention that the script (penned by Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway, with screen story credits to Justin Malen and Ellen Rapoport, all based on characters created by Norman Bridwell) takes advantage of its Harlem based community to introduce several unique characters. They range from a man that has had his hand replaced with a plastic counterpart, a traveling animal rescue tentpole run by a man selling majestic and magical creatures while seemingly having fantastical powers of his own, and sixth-grader Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp of The Christmas Chronicles) who is so tiny you would be forgiven for mistakenly assuming she is actually a fourth-grader and also bullied for that tiny stature.
Essentially, Clifford the Big Red Dog does have an admirable message for young viewers preaching that there’s no need to fear those that are different. As Emily’s mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory) puts it, some of the most influential historical figures didn’t necessarily fit societal norms. Still, she is a lonely child with almost no friends (aside from an Asian boy crushing on her who naturally goes on to assist Emily in any way he can once the hijinks begin), which is about to be compounded by Maggie leaving New York for a couple of days on a business trip.
Enter Jack Whitehall’s Uncle Casey (a foolish manchild desperate to generate laughs in broad slapstick strokes), a down-on-his-luck schmuck that lost his girlfriend and now resides inside the back of his moving truck. Ambitious to become a comic book artist, Casey is also so irresponsible that he can’t even make a job interview on time. He’s also the only choice for babysitting Emily. Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before routines are abandoned, and he finds himself inside the aforementioned animal rescue fair where Clifford immediately strikes up a bond with Emily (at least, as much as possible considering the wonky CGI). Determined not to let the situation spiral out of control and prove to Maggie that he can be trusted with guardianship and general responsibility, Casey reluctantly denies Emily from taking Clifford home.
Of course, Clifford stowaways in Emily’s backpack, anyway. Clifford also happens to be a well-behaved puppy, for the most part, stealing the heart of Emily and slowly chipping away at Casey’s, meaning it doesn’t take much for him to reconsider inside the apartment complex. However, they will have to be secretive about it, considering no pets are allowed. That said, the possibility of keeping Clifford quickly goes out the window once Emily wishes the dog was big and strong (much like she wishes herself wasn’t so small), only for him to grow into the eponymous big red dog magically.
Similarly, it’s also where the quality of this movie goes out the window, as Clifford the Big Red Dog becomes yet another family-oriented flick all too willing to embrace lazy humor and derivative chase sequences around New York. At one point, another dog wishes to sniff Clifford’s butt, so Emily lifts the other dog. That’s an idea of the comedy to be found here, and not the worst attempt. Equally dull is incorporating a nefarious scientific corporation experimenting on animals to enlarge and produce more food to “feed the whole world.” In defense of Tony Hale, he does bring a smarmy, indisputably punchable presence to an otherwise generic villain. Still, the whole subplot seems to exist out of a mandatory need for bad guys to chase Clifford rather than an organic reason.
That’s also a shame because there are one or two sweet and heartstring-pulling moments between Emily and Clifford. The approach of centering the story on those that are different is a logical one that could most definitely produce something more worthwhile in the hands of writers that don’t come across as if they were told to create something familiar by a committee. The Nickelodeon fan childhood inside me was happy to see Kenan Thompson amusingly pop up as a veterinarian, but that’s about to the extent I felt entertained here. As for younger viewers, the message is a good one but is also drowned out by the usual garbage comedy that populates such family-friendly drivel. In other words, Clifford the Big Red Dog is a brown stinker. Maybe not a big stinker, but close enough.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com