The Clifford the Big Red Dog books had been in print 15 years before I was born but I was never a fan of them, nor the series. It’s just one of those things. I never bothered to read the books nor watch the show. Yet, I understand it was very popular with a lot of kids.
It’s taken almost 50 years to get the movie to the big screen. I don’t think it would’ve worked with the technology that was available up until the 2000s. Can you imagine a bad animatronic dog or a lot of forced perception and green screens with a regular dog. Let’s not forget, Clifford is red. You can’t just spray paint a regular dog red.
The CGI for Clifford looks good as it should considering the movie cost $64 million, which seems like chicken feed compared to some of the movies that are made. And Clifford looks good. But the title should be Clifford the Big Red Puppy Dog as the titular character is part of a litter in an abandoned warehouse who is left behind when his mother and siblings are taken away by the pound.
The little dog makes it out and apparently no one in New York City notices a red puppy at first. Even though Clifford is supposed to be a hound dog in the book, in the movie, he’s more of a golden retriever mutt. The joke is that he’s red. What’s the explanation? It’s never revealed. The orphaned dog goes into a park where he meets Mr. Bridwell in a park, who takes him in.
This being a kids movie, we have to have a story also focusing on a human. Enter Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp), 12, a sixth grader at a private school on scholarship who is bullied by her classmates because she’s not rich. Her and her mother, Maggie (Sieanna Guillroy) have just moved to a NYC neighborhood full of a bunch of colorful characters. David Alan Grier sporting a white beard plays Mr. Packard, their gruffy building superintendent. Russell Peters plays Malik, an aspiring magician who is a neighbor. There’s Sanchez (Paul Rodriguez), the local bodega owner and his employee, Raul (Horatio Sanz). Mrs. Crullerman (Tovah Feldsuh) is an elderly Russian neighbor.
Maggie is going on a business trip and leaves Emily in the care of her ne’er do well brother, Casey (Jack Whitehall) who is basically living out of a van. An in-joke is that Casey has an American accent while Maggie has an English accent because he was raised in America while she was raised in England, even though both Whitehall and Guillroy are both English.
While going to school one day, Casey and Emily notice an animal rescue tent nearby the school which they go in to check it out for a while. There they meet Mr. Bridwell who shows them Clifford. Immediately, Emily likes him as Clifford likes her. But they leave, but Clifford gets in her backpack somehow. By now, you would’ve guessed Mr. Bridwell is a more magical character. Later that night, she discovers Clifford, but Casey says they’ll have to return him the next morning.
Emily takes Clifford to bed with her and tells she wishes for him to be big and strong. Earlier, Mr. Bridwell tells Emily that Clifford will get as big as her love will allow him. The next morning, she wakes up and Clifford is a gigantic size. Later that day after a trip to the vet where an assistant, Lucille (Rosie Perez) tells them about Mr. Bridwell and his abilities matching people with the right pets. Because he’s huge and red, Clifford becomes an internet sensation especially after he helps save a lawyer, Mr. Jarvis (Keith Ewell), who lives in their neighborhood.
Another running joke is that Mr. Jarvis and his wife, Mrs. Jarvis (Bear Allen-Baines) always talk in legalese. They also refer to each other by him calling her “Mrs. Jarvis” and he calling her “Mr. Jarvis.” This reminded me of a skit Grier would appear in on In Living Color where he was Mr. Brooks, an elderly man, and his wife, Mrs. Brooks (Kim Wayans) had the same exchange in referring to each other. I don’t know if this was intended or not.
Because of Clifford’s sudden viral sensation, a shady businessman, Zac Tiernan (Tony Hale), owner of Lyfegro, a genetics company, conjures up a scheme to use Clifford as an successful example of his company after some failed experiments with other animals. So, it becomes a chase movie as Casey, Emily and Clifford try to stay away from the authorities. What other movie to have for a dog but a chase movie?
Ok, this isn’t exactly a complicated plot. But everyone in the movie is fully aware they are in a kids movie and they act like it. The plot is simple and cute and doesn’t take itself seriously. The movie has a little charm to it like the Paddington movies but doesn’t have the cleverness. The key is that all the actors are able to know how to play their roles, even if it’s just for a few scenes. This isn’t Harold Pinter. Keenan Thompson has a nice role as the vet having to examine Clifford. And I could have sworn I saw Lance Bass as a crowd extra in the climax scene.
The story has the universal theme of accepting people (and animals) even if they are different. Even though Emily is shunned by many at the school, she becomes popular when they see she’s with Clifford. And the authorities realize that all Clifford is just a big puppy dog. The movie even has a few words to say about companies that experiment on animals. While many of the experiments at Lyfegro aren’t as bad as the real things they used to do and still test on animals, it might make a few young kids (and their parents) change who they buy from.
If anything else, this movie will at least introduce a younger audience to Cleese and all his works.
A sequel is in the works. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plot deals with Clifford finding his mother and siblings. Or maybe they’ll explain why Clifford is red. If not, it would be a good idea.