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‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ is formulaic family fun

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Every once in a while, a movie comes along that intrigues me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate. These tend to be films that are very much not for me – stylistically, tonally, demographically, you name it. I am not the intended audience, and yet I find myself genuinely curious to see them.

So it is with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

I have zero connection with the source material – a series of children’s books by Norman Bridwell – and the general look of the thing seemed kind of meh. The titular Big Red Dog’s CGI rendering looked a bit off. I’m no hater of kiddie flicks, but this one seemed a bit blasé. The director hadn’t made a feature since an “Alvin & the Chipmunks” sequel six years ago.

And yet, I still wanted to see it, for reasons that I myself still don’t quite understand.

As it turns out, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” – which did a simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming via Paramount+ – manages to be quite entertaining despite the fact that I was pretty much justified in my concerns. It does have a so-so look, with the occasional unsettling venture into the uncanny valley. The messaging is standard-issue kid movie stuff. The direction was workmanlike at best and the story makes very little sense if you think about it for even a moment.

I still had fun. Do I feel great about that fact? Not particularly. But I did. And while you may not, I’m betting your kids will.

Emily (Darby Camp) is a little girl living with her mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory) in Harlem. She’s struggling at her new school – she’s on scholarship and the mean girls have targeted her for that. She’s lonely, although she’s very much a presence in the neighborhood, having already charmed folks like aspiring magician Malik (Russell Peters), bodega owners Alonso (Paul Rodriguez) and Raul (Horatio Sanz) and married lawyers the Jarvises (Keith Ewell and Bear Allen-Blaine). Not everyone is as taken with the likeable kid – building superintendent Mr. Packard (David Alan Grier) is not a fan.

When Maggie’s job takes her out of town, she’s forced to enlist her ne’er-do-well brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to look after Emily. One morning, when Casey is walking Emily to school, she sees an animal rescue tent set up in the park. Inside, there’s a wonderful menagerie supervised by an odd fellow by the name of Bridwell (John Cleese), who introduces Emily to an adorable little red puppy; when she asks how big he’ll get, Bridwell answers that it depends on how much she loves him. She wants the dog, Casey says no and they leave.

That night, Emily discovers that the little pup has somehow gotten into her backpack. Casey finds out, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her to get rid of it right away; the plan is to return the dog the next day. But the next morning, there’s a problem. The dog – now named Clifford – is gigantic, 10 feet tall and still very much a puppy.

As you might imagine, a giant red dog attracts a bit of attention. So while Casey and Emily are trying to figure out how to find Bridwell to fix things, Clifford has piqued the interest of a biotech CEO named Tieran (Tony Hale), who believes that Clifford’s size is the key to unlocking his own company’s interests.

Cue the hijinks.

Casey and Emily are forced to go on the run, searching the city for Bridwell – with the help of Emily’s school friend Owen (Izaac Wang) – in hopes of shrinking Clifford before Tieran and his team can catch him. Meanwhile, Packard might evict them and the mean girls are still mean.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” is formulaic and predictable, driven by the usual tropes that power the majority of movies aimed at kids. And yet, for all of that, it still manages to be something of a charmer, a good-hearted effort that might not challenge young viewers, but nor does it really condescend to them. It’s a movie about a giant puppy and how that giant puppy might unleash chaos on an unsuspecting world and not much else; the plot – such as it is – exists solely to advance us from moment to moment of huge dog being huge.

The movie is awash in low-hanging fruit moments – there are several bits about drool and yes, before you ask, there is a bit involving peeing on a tree – but the whole thing is so darned cheerful that it’s tough to be mad about it. Even the sinister corporation is more inept and silly than anything else; even when our heroes are ostensibly in danger, it seems clear that everything is going to be all right. And I’m OK with that. Sometimes, a kid’s movie can just be a kid’s movie.

One thing “Clifford” has going for it is a lovely cast. Darby Camp is a delight as Emily, earning more buy-in for that CGI dog than any amount of computing power could have managed. This feels like an odd choice for Whitehall, but he’s got a knack for playing fecklessness, so it works here. Hale hams it up as the baddie. Grier embraces the crankiness. Cleese is very eccentrically British. The rest of the cast is generally game, with everyone committing to whatever solitary bit they’ve been given (a perfect example is Kenan Thompson, who has one scene and crushes).

As I said, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” isn’t great cinema. And I’m still not sure why I was so intrigued to see it. But at the end of the day, I’m glad I did – it’s not a classic, but it is a light and fun time at the movies. Kids will find it funny and adults will find it at least tolerable, and for a kid’s movie these days, that’s a win.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 November 2021 10:49

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