A film that will satisfy nostalgia-seeking viewers while giving the story of Clifford a fun and modern twist.
Clifford the Big Red Dog dips back and forth between moments of unapologetic sincerity, surprisingly effective slapstick comedy, and dashes of irony that no film about being young in the current moment could be without. And while the enormous CGI dog may disorient viewers at first, director Walt Becker delivers a film that will satisfy nostalgia-seeking viewers while giving the story of Clifford, first created in 1963 by author-cartoonist Norman Bridwell, a fun and modern twist.
Darby Camp (Big Little Lies) plays Emily Elizabeth, a 12-year-old girl who lives alone with her mother (Sienna Guillory) in New York City. Emily Elizabeth attends an elite private school where bullies constantly mock and ostracize her. A group of girls call her “Food Stamp” because she received a scholarship. One day, Emily Elizabeth’s mother must travel for work and, after unsuccessful attempts to find a sitter, enlists the help of her brother and Emily Elizabeth’s uncle, Casey (Jack Whitehall). Casey is a down-on-his-luck illustrator who lives out of a van after a recent break-up. He has twice lost Emily Elizabeth on the subway in the past, but Casey sees this as an opportunity to prove himself to his sister.
The next day, Casey and Emily Elizabeth stop at a curious-looking tent advertising pet adoptions at the park. They enter the elegant tent and find the proprietor, an animal rescuer named Mr. Bridwell. He is the kind of dandy John Cleese is perfectly cast to play. Sensing Emily Elizabeth’s longing for a friend, Mr. Bridwell introduces her to a sleeping red puppy. Naturally, Emily Elizabeth instantly falls in love. She asks Mr. Bridwell how large the puppy will grow. “It depends on how much you love him,” he replies. Despite Emily Elizabeth’s pleas that they adopt the puppy, Casey, knowing her mother would object, says no. They leave the store empty-handed.
But then, after an awful day at school, Emily Elizabeth hears a rustling sound in her backpack. She opens the pouch to find the red puppy. It’s difficult to discern who is more excited to see the other. After some back and forth, they decide on a name for the young red pup: Clifford. But let’s be clear, in the film, Clifford doesn’t talk, not even to other dogs. While he posses a higher level of intelligence than most dogs, he really is just a big, red, CGI Labrador retriever. And it’s this commitment to making Clifford as dog-like as possible, and not some anthropomorphic version of a big red dog, that makes the film work.
Many of the film’s funniest moments come when Clifford, after growing from puppy to “big red dog” just, well, acts like a dog. He chases balls, sits on command, sniffs the behinds of other dogs, and passes gas. The humor comes not simply from how humans respond to seeing a big red dog, but how the dog itself behaves and navigates the human world. While some jokes may feel a bit forced, kids will love it. And adults too should appreciate the creativity behind the slapstick.
One need only be a casual moviegoer to know that there is a recent trend of films that probe the relationship between humans and our animal counterparts. Pig and Lamb are two such examples. And while Clifford is certainly a movie for children, and not a “serious” film in the way those two are, Clifford the Big Red Dog is political.
Peter Tieran (Tony Hale) the CEO of LyfeGrow, a biotech corporation, features as the film’s antagonist. LyfeGrow aims to grow genetically modified animals and food that are larger than life. But they just can’t figure it out. After clips of Clifford go viral on social media, Tieran sees a solution to his company’s problems. He and his team decide to kidnap Clifford by convincing the public he first escaped from their lab. They want to run tests on him, and use him to make millions.
Emily Elizabeth sees through Tieran’s lies immediately. While she, of course, knows where Clifford actually came from, her distrust of Tieran feels rooted in something deeper. Perhaps it is because she knows better than anyone the evils that technology can bring. On the day that she discovered Clifford in her backpack, a GIF of her falling in class was shared among her classmates online. Technology, bad. Animals, good. It is a bit ironic, then, that a jumbo CGI dog figures at the center of this tale.
Viewers should not expect to be wowed by Clifford the Big Red Dog. It is no Paddington. There are cheap jokes and times when the characters feel like caricatures. But the film is highly watchable, and laughs and fun abound. Camp in particular delivers a solid and impressive performance. At the film’s end, she delivers a speech that is so disarmingly sincere you may need to look away from the screen for a moment.
Meeting and defending Clifford leads Emily Elizabeth to form other friendships along the way, including one with her classmate Owen (Izaac Wang). Yet the most compelling bond is the one formed between Emily Elizabeth and her neighbors. As LyfeGrow comes after Clifford, the community rallies to defend him and her. The group includes the local bodega owners, a young couple with their own law practice, an aspiring magician, and a neighbor with a condensed milk obsession. By the film’s end, Emily Elizabeth finds community in unexpected places and helps others realize that our focus on what is “normal” is actually to our detriment. The best example of all? A certain big red dog.
Clifford the Big Red Dog hits theaters and Paramount+ on November 10th
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Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.