Not even our dogged canine punning can ease the tedium of this miscalculated kids’ movie.
Watching Clifford the Big Red Dog, it immediately becomes clear that the titular canine’s red fur represents represent the blood of the proletariat spilled at the altar of capitalism. After all, why else would Clifford populate the cast with kindly working-class humans while delivering antagonists in the form of big Pharma executives, cops, and even a pesky landlord? Clifford’s slapstick rampage is directed at the bourgeoise, whose massive number of sins are reflected in Clifford’s gigantic stature. Old Dogs auteur Walt Becker is putting the transgressions of the privileged class on display and introducing children to the concept of class consciousness.
Now, if that interpretation sounds a touch far-fetched, well, it’s what happens when sitting through the banal antics of Clifford the Big Red Dog. The story that unfolds on-screen is so tedious that the only fun to be had in it lies in contorting its allegorical meaning into something that never crossed the minds of Becker and company.
Based on the children’s books created by the late Norman Bridwell, Clifford the Big Red Dog immediately descends into self-parody with a prologue depicting the gargantuan pup’s tragic origin story, one that involves his mom and siblings getting abducted. Truly all characters beloved by kids for decades cry out for the addition of intense familial trauma to their backstory. I eagerly await the Magic School Bus movie opening on the reveal that Miss Frizzle inherited her extraordinary vehicle from her mother after she perished on 9/11.
While the pooch is the centerpiece of this eye-roll-worthy sequence, that doesn’t mean Clifford the Big Red Dog is completely focused on its character. Taking a cue from the initial Transformers movies, Clifford the Big Red Dog shoves aside the beloved cartoon character everyone came to see in favor of generic human drama. Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) feels like an outcast in her ritzy New York City private school. Her uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) is also adrift in life, thanks to his lack of a job or living space outside of his car.
Elizabeth and Casey have been forced to live together for a few days while Elizabeth’s mom travels for work. Their unfulfilling lives are swiftly upended when the kooky named-for-the-series-creator Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) offers Elizabeth a tiny, red puppy named Clifford. Elizabeth’s extreme love for the pup causes Clifford to embiggen dramatically overnight. While the witless duo tries to control their larger-than-life pet, Big Pharma executive Peter Tiernan (Tony Hale) has his eyes on Clifford as the key to his experiments to create gigantic food.
Truly all characters beloved by kids for decades cry out for the addition of intense familial trauma to their backstory.
What’s especially odd about Clifford the Big Red Dog is how its screenplay, credited to Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway, has only a nominal interest in the titular character. Most of the time, Clifford is an object to be lugged around by the other characters. There are even surprisingly long stretches of the story where he remains entirely off-screen. If you’re going to make a kid’s movie about a massive dog, shouldn’t that creature be the centerpiece of your story, not just an afterthought? Surely kids would rather see Clifford just being a cute dog than melodramatic human antics. I know I would.
As for the humans, they’re an uninspired lot of characters, particularly Uncle Casey. Though played with a game spirit by Jack Whitehall, his personality continually shifts to fit the needs of the story. This is especially apparent in the opening scenes, where he’s established as a slacker who downs complimentary candy as a free lunch. But simultaneously he’s a stricter parental figure to Elizabeth than her mother, initially forbidding her from keeping Clifford. Casey’s inconsistent demeanor makes it impossible to get as invested in his story as the multiple schmaltzy scenes insist that we must be.
It’s quite strange how every person in Clifford’s vision of New York City is an oversized caricature. In Elizabeth’s apartment complex alone, there’s an elderly Russian woman obsessed with condensed milk and a middle-aged man enthusiastic about going to magic school. Initially, it seems like the goal will be to show that, much like Jason Voorhees, Clifford fits right in in a city packed with oddballs. That goes right out the window once Clifford steps outside for the first time and all of New York gawks at him like he was Gamera.
With that potential concept dashed, the only result of packing Clifford the Big Red Dog with so many aggressively WACKY humans (and WACKY animals too, for that matter) is that the titular character doesn’t feel like the aberration he’s supposed to be. Two-headed goats have been created in this universe, why is a massive dog a big deal? Furthermore, a cast that’s comprised of caricatures that escaped a taping of a 2006 Nickelodeon sitcom is simply not a good fixture for Clifford’s numerous sentimental moments to turn on.
By adhering to “realism”, though, Clifford the Big Red Dog continually calls attention to its title character’s artificiality.
As for Clifford himself, he’s brought to life through stunningly poor direction that never makes his CGI self look like he’s inhabiting the movie’s live-action environments. Nobody may be going into Clifford the Big Red Dog expecting visual effects on par with Dune, but it’s still astonishing how Clifford looks more detached from the world he inhabits than the dancing version of Marmaduke or the G-Force Guinea pigs from over a decade ago.
Part of the problem is the decision to make Clifford look like a “realistic” dog. Going in a more cartoony direction with his appearance might have made the sight of a giant dog more digestible. It wouldn’t matter if he didn’t look like he belonged in live-action settings like Central Park, because his design would indicate that was never meant to fit into reality. By adhering to “realism”, though, Clifford the Big Red Dog continually calls attention to its title character’s artificiality.
Becker’s visual sensibilities don’t improve much even when the dubious CG dog isn’t in the center frame. Clumsy camerawork and editing constantly undercut potentially fun sight gags, like Elizabeth, in the background of a shot, trying to conceal Clifford from a pet-hating landlord. If Becker would just keep the camera still for a moment, the jokes might land. Instead, Clifford’shyperactive visual sensibilities sabotage even the simplest moments of slapstick, like Casey kicking a wall so hard that a letter falls off a wall in another room.
The lack of creativity on display is even reflected in the choice to set Clifford the Big Red Dog in New York City. Why do so many live-action adaptations of cartoons and children’s characters (Tom & Jerry, The Smurfs, and so on and such forth) opt to plop their stars into the Big Apple? Aren’t there other iconic cities they could inhabit? Worse, Clifford and its dubious peers never do anything interesting with their New York backdrops. They might as well be set in a blank void.
It’s no surprise that a Clifford the Big Red Dog movie from the director of Wild Hogs is bad. What is surprising is how frequently it ignores what its target audience of young children might truly want to see. Young kids don’t want to see boring humans engage in forced attempts at sentimentality, they wanna see a big doggo. Repeated references to Clifford’s anus and a scene where the character urinates on a human on-screen (hey, another parallel to the 2007 Transformers movie!) make it even more unclear if Clifford has any idea of its audience.
Too leaden for youngsters, too wooden for adults, Clifford the Big Red Dog is a big, bland ole mess, even if it does demonstrate class solidarity.
Clifford the Big Red Dog arrives in theaters and on Paramount+ on Novembrer 10th.