Covering Toronto International Film Festival, I was shocked earlier this year to see Clifford the Big Red Dog among the lineup. Before being unceremoniously pulled from release (then subsequently rescheduled to November 10th), I was looking forward to Clifford thanks in large part to a bonkers first trailer. Based on the Scholastic Book Series Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell, I think overall Clifford deserved a better big-screen treatment than this new film was able to provide. Walt Becker, behind such films as Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip and Wild Hogs, was a curious choice to step into the director’s chair. Occasional cutesy delights abound, yet Clifford is held back from greatness thanks to the restrictions of its format. Steadfast dedication to the bond between man and dog forms Clifford the Big Red Dog’s big red beating heart. Younger viewers may get a kick out of Clifford’s newest outing (this time in live action!), but speaking as an adult with an admiration for the nostalgia of yesteryear, an average person will struggle to find any takeaways. Slathered generously with cheesy messaging for the outsider in us all, get ready to smile and roll your eyes at the same time…
When his mother and siblings are taken away to the pound, a newborn bright-red Clifford is forced to stumble around New York City before being taken in by the magical Mary Poppins-esque Bridwell (John Cleese). Meanwhile, Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) has just moved to a new school from upstate, and the awful kids at her new private school call her “food stamp.” Emily’s mother, Maggie (Sienna Guillory), an overworked paralegal, entrusts her homeless brother, Casey (Jack Whitehall), to be Emily’s new babysitter while she is away on business. Naturally, Casey takes Emily to Bridwell’s Animal Rescue Tent where she falls in love with Clifford. Emily does not get to take Clifford home here; instead, he pops up randomly inside of her backpack and climbs out. Casey agrees to let her keep Clifford overnight before they will return him in the morning. A magical tear-filled wish for Clifford to be “big and strong” causes him to grow monstrously large overnight. Now, Casey and Emily must locate Bridwell (who has mysteriously vanished), deflect attention from a crazed genetics researcher (Tony Hale), and follow Clifford on a life-altering journey across the Big Apple!
As a child, I latched onto the adorable 2000s animated Clifford iteration. This new film’s largest accomplishment is that it makes Clifford an adorable puppy, just large. His only issues are that he is “big and red.” I could not help but picture a strange scenario in which my own dogs would balloon to gargantuan proportions overnight. Smacking everything with his tail, licking the exposed bottom of the building’s superintendent, chasing what looks to be one huge ball around Central Park—the actual doggie antics are hilarious, silly fun. On a separate note is the live-action cast of characters. There is the mob-like community, including Tovah Feldshuh as a crabby old Russian woman obsessed with condensed milk that steals every scene. Darby Camp is good as Emily (relishing every cheesy line), and Isaac Wang (Owen, who befriends Emily) is a delight. Jack Whitehall’s Casey is weirdly charming in a sleazy kind of way. It was an interesting choice to force Whitehall into an American accent despite already having a British one, and to go so far as to mock it. Whitehall is having fun in this role, and it shows. I think Jack Whitehall was a good choice to give older audience members eye candy to tide them over in between the schmaltz.
The only other feature-film iteration of Clifford was released seventeen years ago—John Ritter’s final role voicing the titular big dog came in the form of Clifford’s Really Big Movie. That one certainly broke a cardinal rule (Clifford should not talk), but it remained on constant rotation during some formative years of my life. 2021’s Clifford the Big Red Dog gets a couple classic things right, while fumbling the ball significantly in others. Magic may be “all around us,” but it was certainly not in the muddled and inconsistent CGI. Puppy Clifford is downright adorable stumbling down a set of stairs—is that enough to forgive his misshapen body-to-head ratio? Forget about anytime a character jumps on Clifford’s back—they look like avatars from a PS2-era video game. All joking aside, even with bad CGI, I am open to watching puppy Clifford stumble around New York City wrestling with a pigeon over a discarded fry.
A colorful comic-style animated opening and bookend hangs a dark cloud over what could have been. I loved both of these moments, heavily coated with a sheen of nostalgia. Why not make an animated Clifford movie for a new generation? Years back, Illumination Entertainment was rejiggering the property; perhaps animation would be the perfect meeting place for the outlandishly bizarre segments. More than anything else, Clifford the Big Red Dog made me want to go snuggle with my doggies, Beth and Mowgli. They may not be comprised of spotty CGI, but the canine love emanating from Clifford is enough to make me appreciate what I do have waiting for me back home.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is unleashed when it hits theaters and Paramount+ on Wednesday, November 10th.