“Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a live-action feature that goes for the Hollywood formula of child against the world of adults, but for dogs, this approach doesn’t do enough.
As a child, I wasn’t a fan of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” but since I got a dog as an adult, I have been the girl who loved her dogs and that has been my guiding principle in my adult life. I also volunteered for nearly a decade at an animal shelter and found aspects of this film disturbing.
Fans of the books might also be disappointed. According to Wikipedia, created by Norman Bridwell, Clifford begins as a two-year-old dog who belongs to Emily Elizabeth, a eight-year-old girl and in the two animated TV series (2019 and 2000-2003), Emily Elizabeth had a mother (Carolyn) and a father (Mark).
The live-action film “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” begins with whimsical 2D animation and a voiceover by John Cleese who describes Manhattan as “an island full of wonder.”
Part of that wonder is a yellow lab making a den in an abandoned warehouse and this segment could almost be cut from the film. If your child is the questioning kind, you might have to tell some lies. Now we know that Clifford before he met his girl had a mum and she and her pups were taken away by animal control. Where they went and what happened to them we aren’t told. If you let reality sink in, the puppies were likely euthanized. At least the two animal control people aren’t demonized. The film seems to hope you’ll soon forget them.
The pup destined to be Clifford is hidden by blankets. Left alone, he makes his way out of the warehouse, down some stairs and to a park where he meets the narrator, Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese).
The 12-year-old Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) is on scholarship at a private school. Forced to leave on a business trip, her single mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory) is leaving Emily in the care of her irresponsible, impulsive brother, Casey (Jack Whitehall), who is currently living in the back of a commercial vehicle.
On the way to school, Mr. Bridwell has a popup shop and in it, Emily Elizabeth finds the small red puppy. Although Casey says, “No,” somehow the pup ends up in Emily Elizabeth’s backpack and back at the apartment. Being much too late to return the pup, Casey allows the pup to stay, but overnight, the pup grows into the titular bigness. Casey and Emily Elizabeth attempt to hide the pup from the landlord, Packard (David Alan Grier), hoping to take the pup back to Mr. Bridwell.
The pup follows Emily Elizabeth to school and helps her make friends with the geeky, computer savvy Owen (Izaac Wang), and put the snooty Florence (Mia Ronn) in her place. The pup becomes internet-famous when his outing in the park and at the school is videotaped on numerous cellphones.
The shenanigans catch the attention of a greedy biotech CEO, Tieran (Tony Hale). His company has been attempting to develop a way of ending world hunger, but so far has only produced a two-headed goat and an overly aggressive ungulate. Tieran sees the red pup as an investment gold mine–showing that he can produce oversized animals and believing that technology can eventually be used to enlarge domestic farm animals for eating.
When Emily Elizabeth fails to find Bridwell, Owen’s father, Mr. Yu (Russell Wong), provides a possible plan: Exporting the dog to Asia where Mr. Yu has a large amount of land.
As you can imagine, Emily Elizabeth can’t be parted from Clifford so there will be a solution and somehow Tieran will be defeated.
What you won’t see is Emily Elizabeth bonding and training Clifford and going through the usual trials of puppy training. An attack by an exuberant large dog on a person in a large plastic bubble ball is played for laughs.
There’s nothing really funny about a large, uncontrolled dog loose in the park that is destroying property. That is why so many large dogs end up in the animal shelter. One wonders where is animal control and why isn’t it enforcing leash laws, but after the initial segment, animal control officers seem to disappear.
As I mentioned above, I once volunteered at an animal shelter. I remain involved with a breed rescue. My little rescue dog, Misty (see above photo), was temporarily loved as a puppy, but lived neglected in a big backyard. She ended up at an animal shelter because she was untrained. She came into a breed rescue (Southland Collie Rescue) in October, but was given to me to foster after a panicky failed adoption in January before she turned a year old. I was only given 48 hours to prepare to take her in. Retraining her hasn’t been easy, but when no one was willing to adopt her after a year, my husband and I adopted her. She will turn seven in January.
While I love the idea of Clifford as a fantastically big dog who is an odd shade of red, I do feel that bringing Clifford into live-action comes with some responsibility. And if you’re going to introduce a pee sight gag, you’ve also make people wonder about poop and then house training. We never wonder about how Pete the Dragon defecated because it is never introduced into the reality of the film.
I love the diversity of the casting and how NYC is portrayed as magical in the 2D animation at the beginning and the end of the film, but there are segments in the screenplay by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway that are problematic. Camp is believable and her acting is very natural as opposed to precocious. As her slacker uncle, Whitehall is really the foundation upon which this tale is built upon, but why a man and not a woman (the mother) if Emily Elizabeth’s father is going to be absent? This plotting does allow for a visit from the distinguished Wong and perhaps if there are more films, Wong will provide the steady father figure of subsequent films. Director Walt Becker (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip”) keeps a cheery upbeat tone throughout although that seems a bit weird when there’s fighting against the bad guys.
What I do enjoy without any reservations is the app the people at Paramount have produced for people to Clifford-size their own dogs.
“Clifford the Big Red Dog” will be released theatrically and digitally on Paramount+ on 10 November 2021. Rated PG for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action ·