Clifford The Big Red Dog Review: He's Big, He's Red, He's Forgettable

You know what movie was an absolute miracle? "Paddington." Consider how easy it would have been for a feature-length adaptation of the Michael Bond character and its exploits to fail. You have a beloved character from children's picture books, one that doesn't automatically lend itself to a 90-minute story, set in a modern world, with a CG version of said beloved character. If nothing else, the "Paddington" films (both the 2014 original and its masterful 2017 sequel) should have been dead on arrival. That these films succeeded is all the more amazing when placed next to an adaptation of another children's book series, one that rises no further than the qualitative level of forgettable. That film, the forgettable one, is this week's new release "Clifford the Big Red Dog".

If you know the "Clifford" series by author Norman Bridwell, there are a number of recognizable elements in this family film, directed by Walt Becker. There's a little girl named Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), there's of course an inexplicably red and large dog named Clifford, and plenty of hijinks he gets up to upon growing to giant height. But the Bridwell books are intentionally small in scope even if Clifford himself is large, so the script for "Clifford the Big Red Dog" adds in both unnecessary and dull antagonism courtesy of a tech billionaire (Tony Hale) who sees Clifford as his ticket to strengthening his company. The main conflict is more than enough (arguably too much), as Emily Elizabeth bonds with her slacker uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) after her mother (Sienna Guillory) travels for business out of New York City.

That is "Clifford the Big Red Dog" in a nutshell: there is both too much going on and not nearly enough to hold interest. It's not enough that Emily Elizabeth is struggling to connect with Casey, it's that she's also alienated at the fancy boarding school where she goes because she's made to feel poor for attending because she received a scholarship. It's not just enough that the grouchy superintendent of the building (David Alan Grier) is a threat because he refuses any of his tenants to have dogs, it's that you have Hale's tech-bro hovering over the proceedings with his cronies. Perhaps it would work more if the script, by Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway, was funnier as opposed to lazier. (Would you believe there are gags about the larger size of Clifford's bathroom goings-on? Of course you would.)

A Dog That Should've Stayed in the Pound

The challenge for "Clifford the Big Red Dog" isn't just how to visualize the dog once he gets very large. (Even though this film clocks in, including end credits, at just 96 minutes, it takes 20 minutes for Emily Elizabeth and Clifford to meet, and nearly a half-hour for him to turn from a normal-sized puppy to a huge one.) The special effects are dodgy, especially during a couple of sequences where either Emily Elizabeth or Casey is riding astride Clifford like he's a horse. But compared to something like "Paddington," the real difficulty is that Clifford, despite being strangely colored and very big, is still just a normal dog, in that he has no other special powers. He doesn't talk, and he doesn't emote any more than an actual dog would. That, then, leaves the heavy lifting to the tired storylines, which feel especially tired considering some of the weird ways this film boxes itself in. 

An easy, baffling example is the presence of the British comedian Whitehall as Casey; you may recall him from this past summer's Disney film "Jungle Cruise." Whitehall is serviceable, except for being called upon to use an American accent, a weird enough choice before the film has Casey explain away why his sister is British but he is not. (Having him be British would've been a lot simpler.)

The touches of magical realism in "Clifford the Big Red Dog" would, also, be more enjoyable if the film didn't feel like it had to work in overdrive to explain itself. If you have ever wondered, "Yes, but how is Clifford such a big dog?", well, this movie will provide the answer. (That it chooses to explain why Clifford is so big, but not so red, is another head-scratcher.) It would be enough for Clifford's jump in size to go unexplained, or to be given the vaguer explanation provided by the mysterious traveling animal-carnival emcee (John Cleese) who connects Emily Elizabeth to Clifford, about love being the key. Providing even a sliver of further detail only explains away the magic of why this character is so well-liked by children.

"Clifford the Big Red Dog" did not have to be such a wisp of a thing. The "Paddington" films prove that it's possible to make a delightful feature out of such bare-bones material. It can be done. And it's not as if this film's cast (at least its supporting players) isn't impressive enough that they could elevate solid material. Everyone does their able best, and Rosie Perez even makes a brief appearance that mostly serves to make you wish she was in more than just one scene. "Clifford the Big Red Dog" isn't bad so much as worth forgetting or skimming past, either at the theaters or on Paramount+, where you can stream it right now. But it could've been good, if the filmmakers chose to make something beyond a mishmash of modern family-film cliches.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10