How Can You Say No to That Face? – Clifford the Big Red Dog

I hadn’t originally planned to see the cinematic adaptation of Clifford the Big Red Dog, even though the trailer suggested it would be an enjoyable film for kids. I’m simply not the target audience, and I’m self-aware enough to realize that it would look weird for a single man in his late 30s to take in a kiddie movie by himself, almost as weird as paying for a Paramount+ subscription. But in an odd twist of fate, I went on my first date since the world started returning to normal, and this happened to fit in with the schedule of the young lady who accompanied me. So bring on the puppy antics! Honestly, it was a much-needed palate cleanser after Eternals.

As I expected, the movie had very little in terms of internal logic, and the special effects were not great. But setting that aside, I can’t deny that I was entertained. It wasn’t just the movie itself, though it certainly has its merits, but there was also a family with small children sitting right behind us, and you could hear the wonder in their voices as they watched the story unfold. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was their first ever trip out to the movies. Either way, their enthusiasm was contagious, enough for me to look past the obvious flaws and enjoy the experience on two levels.

Now, I can’t honestly review this film without addressing the most glaring issue. The CGI on Clifford is crap. Like, it’s really bad, you guys. This is something that might have passed for innovative back in, say, 1995, but these days it’s something that a VFX house should honestly be ashamed of. It feels like they spent the entire budget focusing on making Clifford’s eyes and face as expressive as possible, and in that respect it worked, but everything else was a complete afterthought, if it was even a thought at all. His fur is inconsistent, he’s often not lit properly relative to the scene, and there seems to have been no effort to make the blending of his model and the real-life actors appear even remotely realistic. It looks like they’re in two completely different frames spliced together with no regard for depth. When the film’s lead, Emily-Elizabeth (Darby Camp from The Christmas Chronicles and Big Little Lies), reaches out to pet him, it really looks like she’s petting air, rather than a stand-in motion capture actor or plush substitute that they’d animate Clifford over.

But that’s me as a jaded adult watching this thing. For the kids in the crowd, they were enchanted, and that’s really all that matters. I saw some children closer to the front row reaching up to see if they could touch him, as the design was more than real enough to set their imaginations soaring, so mission accomplished. And as I said, while the overall model isn’t convincing, they really did give Clifford a lively face, one more adorable than it had any right to be. Even I let out an audible, “Aww,” whenever he laid the puppy eyes on thick in certain scenes, or when he scrunched up on a dock in an attempt to make himself smaller so he could stay with his adoptive family. The image alone is so sweet that it probably made my diabetes worse, but the heartstring tug certainly worked on me, and the smallest audience members were legitimately worried for his future, which was the whole point.

The plot is basic to just about every children’s movie these days. Emily-Elizabeth is a middle school student at a private school in New York, which she got into on a scholarship. The popular mean girl in the school, Florence (Mia Ronn), mocks her by calling her, “Food Stamp,” which is honestly a much more cutting insult than I would have expected for a movie this lighthearted. Kudos for defying expectations, writers. When Emily’s mother (Sienna Guillory), has to go to Chicago on a business trip, Emily is left in the care of her uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), a slacker oaf who lives in a van and never takes anything seriously. No mention of a father figure at all, but it’s a kids movie, so I’m just grateful one parent is even alive.

While walking her to school one day, Casey lets Emily take a detour to a tent in the park where the whimsical Mr. Bridwell (named after Clifford’s creator, Norman Bridwell), played by John Cleese, has several exotic and impossible animals, including one that he can’t tell if it’s a short giraffe or a tall hyena until he tells a joke. He’s the perfect kind of magical character for a film with this level of stakes. Anyway, Emily finds Clifford as a tiny puppy in the tent (Bridwell had come across him in the park moments before, after he was separated from his birth family) and is instantly smitten. Casey says she can’t keep him, being the adult he has to be in situations like these (pets are banned in Emily’s apartment building), but Bridwell assures her that they’re meant for each other, and that he’ll grow as much as he’s loved. Somehow, in a manner that’s never explained because no explanation would be satisfactory, Clifford ends up in Emily’s backpack, discovered only when she returns home after school. She convinces Casey to let her keep him for the night, and goes to bed with him, wishing he were big and strong, and loving him as only an innocent child can.

Next morning, as we all know, Clifford is huge, and hijinks ensue. Casey tries to figure out a way to return Clifford to Bridwell, while Zack Tieran (Tony Hale), the CEO of a company that seeks to grow bigger food through genetic modification technology, formulates a plan to take ownership of the dog to study it once Clifford becomes a viral celebrity. The race is on with the whole neighborhood to see Clifford to safety, with a healthy tween crush B-plot between Emily and her classmate Owen (Izaac Wang of Good Boys).

All of this is pretty standard, and a lot of the jokes write themselves, from thinking a large inflatable human hamster ball is a fetch toy to Clifford sniffing the butt of Owen’s pug and accidentally inhaling it in the process. But even in the most sophomoric of gags, there’s a sweetness to it all that makes it forgivable, and even entertaining.

For the parents looking for something to latch onto, there’s a solid supporting cast of comic and character actors to keep attention. David Alan Grier, Kenan Thompson, Rosie Perez, Russell Peters, Horatio Sanz, Siobhan Fallon, and Paul Rodriguez all play interesting and fun characters, even if they are one-note and just there to advance the plot.

Sure, there’s a ton to nitpick here. Where’s Emily’s father? How did Clifford get into her bag? How has Rosie Perez seen Bridwell’s animals before as the receptionist at the veterinarian’s office, but Kenan Thompson, the actual vet, hasn’t? How can our heroes continually traverse New York City with no traffic? Why is a company dedicated to ending world hunger by creating bigger food considered the bad guy? What are the rules when it comes to Bridwell’s magic? How did a golden retriever give birth to a red dog? How exactly does Clifford eat, drink, and shit? How does injecting a tracker chip into Clifford’s skin establish ownership for Tieran when his story is demonstrably false?

But those are questions for cynical adults like me. For the little kids watching this, all that really counts is whether Clifford is cute and funny. There almost doesn’t even have to be an actual story, just a series of silly sketches and vignettes with a touch of heart thrown in for good measure. And on those narrow grounds, the film succeeds. It won’t win any awards, nor should it, but it’s the kind of movie your kids will want to watch over and over again, and if you’re lucky, the lessons will stick with them as they grow up.

I mean, it can’t be any worse than Paw Patrol, right?

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you read Clifford books when you were a kid? Does your dog share your bed, and if so, how adorable is it? Let me know!

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