'Clifford the Big Red Dog' review: Adorable family adventure lives up to the source material
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
In what might be the biggest shocker of 2021, Walt Becker’s adaptation of the beloved children’s series, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is not terrible or annoying. Rather, it’s got a tender sweet spot, punctuated with storybook qualities, warm narration, and a furry, larger than life bright red pupper at the center. “Clifford the Big Red Dog” isn’t trying to be anything except a minimalist afternoon diversion for audiences who either grew up reading Norman Birdwell’s stories or young tykes just getting indoctrinated. In a world stoked with division, there’s something wholesome about the silly charm of an oversized canine rallying a vibrant New York City community.
The logistics of a live action “Clifford” seemed like a head scratcher (as did “Stuart Little” of which this movie owes some debt too). When you’re watching an animated PBS special, it’s easier to suspend disbelief, but seeing Clifford on screen in full scale next to the human actors is an adjustment. Earlier scenes where Clifford is a small critter, the CGI looks ruffled and borders on deep fake territory, but when blown up to massive proportions, the texture and lifelike qualities win you over. Clifford blends with the scenery and the fact nobody in the movie questions his existence helps set the tone we’re in a family movie where a gargantuan doggo freely roaming the city isn’t the most implausible scenario.
Like the Birdwell stories, the entire plot builds around the idea society accepts Clifford for the adorable, skyscraper sized pup he is. Though Emily Elizabeth (a wonderful Darby Camp) snags Clifford when he’s tiny from the whimsical Birdwell (played with a dapper sense of cheeriness by John Cleese), her love for him balloons him 10 feet tall overnight. Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway’s screenplay doesn’t need to over-explain: This is Clifford. He is big. And we live with it. Because “Clifford the Big Red Dog” does a great job establishing a universe where it’s easy to expect the titular dog would be embraced and not feared, there’s not much left to imagination. Becker knows where to steer this vehicle and the opening voiceover declaring Manhattan an “island full of wonder” sets the correct tone.
“Clifford the Big Red Dog” isn’t weighted by trivial family movie mechanics either; here Darby Camp injects an earnest believability to the tween-aged Emily Elizabeth. Her arch, though small in stature, brings the waterworks and Clifford’s puppy dog eyes should cut through any stubborn heart. The cast is rounded out by a cartoonish, mustache twirling Tony Hale playing the CEO of a biotech company keen on exploiting Clifford’s genetics for his own nefarious schemes and Jack Whitehall, finding several layers of affability, as Emily’s eccentric Uncle Casey, the obligatory adult accompanying Emily and Clifford on their misadventures.
But Camp, Hale, and Whitehall never lose sight of the material and despite cashing an easy paycheck, by playing it straight, they bring integrity to the story. Their overall sense of joy and astonishment fosters an environment where young kids can believe anything is possible and no dream, including owning a giant dog that looks like a fire truck, is out of reach. Birdwell wouldn’t have it any other way.
CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG opens in theaters and streams on Paramount+ Wednesday, November 10th.