‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’: Film Review

Based on the children’s book series by Norman Bridwell, the family film centers on a young New Yorker whose tiny new puppy grows to be 10 feet tall overnight.

It may seem like damning with faint praise to suggest that the reason Clifford the Big Red Dog succeeds as well as it does is that it doesn’t try to do too much in the first place. It’s not reinventing the wheel or breaking new ground; it’s unlikely to wow audiences with its bold artistic vision or profound emotional depths. But there’s a place for sturdy and familiar entertainment that delivers exactly what it intends, and Clifford the Big Red Dog is just that.

As in the Norman Bridwell books it’s based on, the film’s entire plot essentially boils down to “what if a dog were bright red and enormous?” Though he’s adopted as a tiny pup by a preteen New Yorker named Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), her outsize love for him turns him 10 feet tall overnight. Refreshingly, that’s about as much justification as we get for both his color and his stature. The screenplay (credited to Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway) avoids the overachiever pitfall of trying to explain stuff that’s more satisfying left alone.

Clifford the Big Red Dog

The Bottom Line

Familiar, but sturdy and sweet.

Release date: Wednesday, Nov. 10
Cast: Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, John Cleese
Director: Walt Becker
Screenwriters: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Blaise Hemingway

Rated PG,
1 hour 37 minutes

The film clears, with only a little bit of difficulty, its most obvious hurdle — namely, the fact that it’s one thing for Clifford to be as red as a fire engine and as tall as a house in brightly illustrated children’s books, but another for him to look that way in “live action” (really, the kind of high-tech animation that’s meant to look like live action). In practice, though, Clifford’s scale renders him so fantastical that he might as well be Bumblebee from Bumblebee or Elliot from Pete’s Dragon. He’s “realistic”-looking enough to blend into his shot-on-location surroundings, but not so much so that he’s alarming to behold. If anything, he’s creepier looking when he’s pigeon-size but proportioned like a much larger animal.

Besides, Clifford the Big Red Dog establishes a world where it more or less scans that an enormous excitable puppy would be a fun new friend rather than a terrifying threat. The elegant illustrations and John Cleese’s warm voiceover that open the movie establish Manhattan as “an island full of wonder,” where a girl might wander into a pop-up animal adoption tent run by a Mary Poppins-ish proprietor (Cleese) and be matched with the magical pet she never knew she needed. Though the ever-present laptops and iPhones place the movie in the present day, Clifford the Big Red Dog‘s low-key whimsy feels like it could have come from any time in the past 30 years.

At the same time, it’s free of the cloying preciousness that mars too many kids’ films. Emily Elizabeth is believably tween-age, better at trying to sound precocious (she drops words like “abysmal” and “atrocious” when complaining about school) than she is at actually acting wise beyond her years. Her emotional journey is a mild one — Clifford’s sad-puppy eyes provoke coos, not Pixar-level crying jags. But it fits the story unfolding onscreen, which isn’t above mustache-twirling villains like Tony Hale’s greedy biotech CEO, or potty humor about Clifford’s oppressively smelly farts. (Thankfully, the film spares us the sight of what one can only assume must be couch-size turds.)

The film’s real secret weapon, however, isn’t much of a secret at all: It’s first-billed star Jack Whitehall, as Emily Elizabeth’s well-meaning but irresponsible uncle. Emily Elizabeth may be the protagonist and Clifford the premise, but Whitehall’s Uncle Casey is the glue holding the entire operation together. His performance sets the film’s tone (playful but not frenzied) and calibrates the audience’s reactions (perplexed but not horrified). He turns just-OK jokes into laugh-out-loud ones with his loose and spontaneous delivery.

While Casey does, from time to time, shake his head at the absurd situation he’s found himself in, Whitehall never once winks to convey he knows it’s all nonsense. We buy into the film’s magic because he sells it so smoothly. As spells go, it isn’t a particularly rare or elaborate one. But it’s enchanting enough to merit a smile.

Full credits

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production companies: Entertainment One, Kerner Entertainment Company, Scholastic Entertainment, New Republic Pictures, Walden Media
Cast: Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, John Cleese
Director: Walt Becker
Screenwriters: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Blaise Hemingway
Screen story by Justin Malen, Ellen Rapoport
Based on the books by Norman Bridwell
Producers: Jordan Kerner, Iole Lucchese
Executive producers: Brian Oliver, Bradley J. Fischer, Valerii An, Brian Bell, Caitlin Friedman, Deborah Forte, Lisa Crnic
Cinematographer: Peter Lyons Collister
Production designer: Naomi Shohan
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Sabrina Plisco
Composer: John Debney
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, Amanda Mackey, Stephen Vincent

Rated PG, 1 hour 37 minutes