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Review: Clifford the Big Red Dog

November 7, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Based on Norman Bridwell’s classic children’s books that date back to the 1960s, (which also spawned an animated PBS series in the early 2000s), Clifford the Big Red Dog is a modern big screen adaptation that brings the adventures of a young girl and her gigantic red puppy to life through a mix of live action and animation.

And the movie (which became the butt of Film Twitter jokes when it was announced as a Gala Premiere at TIFF, only to be pulled from the festival a little while later) is actually somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It’s a family film that is predictable in terms of plot but finds ways to be sweet and enjoyable, with a charming heart to go along with the slapstick humour of a ten foot tall dog rampaging through New York City.

Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) is a lonely middle schooler who is bullied by the rich kids at her private school and longs for a pet, but is forbidden from having one in her small Harlem apartment. When her lawyer mother (Sienna Guillory) goes away on business, Emily is left in the care of Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), a slacker illustrator who lives in a moving van and can barely look after himself let alone fulfill the role of babysitter.

On the way to school, they encounter an eccentric older gentleman named Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), who has a tent full of magical creatures, one of them being a bright red puppy that captures Emily’s heart. How big will he get? That all depends on how much she loves him. The puppy, which she names Clifford, finds his way home in Emily’s backpack, and she loves him so much that something magical happens overnight. When she wakes up in the morning, she is met by a massive, playful pup who can destroy a room with the wagging of his tail.

This allows for a number of comic antics as Emily and Uncle Casey try to keep the huge dog concealed and out of trouble. But there is a villain, Tieran (a scenery-chewing Tony Hale), who wants the dog for his own. Tieran is the head of a bioengineering firm that is trying to genetically modify farm animals to be larger so they can provide more food, and when he catches a glimpse of Clifford on the news, he sees the big red dog as holding the genetic key to his experiments.

From here, Clifford the Big Red Dog essentially becomes a madcap chase movie, as Uncle Casey and Emily, joined by her precocious classmate Owen (Izaac Wang), try to protect Clifford from Tieran and stop him from being taken by the lab. This subplot makes the film feel overly busy and chaotic at times, and the humour is mostly broad. The film is designed first and foremost to entertain younger kids, but there is enough here to keep it watchable for older viewers as well.

Directed by Walt Becker (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip), there is little original about the plot of Clifford the Big Red Dog, which is familiar in story and structure to a variety of other live action family films (in fact, there are more than a few similarities to the Disney+ movie Flora & Ulysses from earlier this year). But it’s a genial and mostly entertaining film that coasts by on the winsome charms of Camp and Whitehall, and the likeable big red dog at its centre.

The film is propelled by its boundless energy, with Whitehall doing most of the heavy lifting, and a number of comic supporting roles including Russell Peters as an aspiring magician neighbour and Kenan Thompson as a veterinarian. The visual effects work that brings Clifford to life is decent if not remarkable and can be inconsistent at times, but his spot-on personality as a puppy who doesn’t know his own size makes him endearing.

Despite the inherent predictability of the plot, Clifford the Big Red Dig does have its heart in the right place, with a few moments designed to tug at the heartstrings of those who love their pets. The expected messages about the benefits of being unique and standing apart from the pack seem obligatory for this sort of movie, but are presented in a way that feels sincere.

Clifford the Big Red Dog opens in theatres on November 10th. It’s being distributed in Canada by Entertainment One.

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