Clifford the Big Red Dog Synopsis: When Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) meets a magical animal rescuer who gives her a little red puppy, she never anticipated waking up to find a giant, 10-foot hound in her small New York City apartment. With her single mother away on business, Emily and her fun but impulsive uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) set out on an adventure that takes a bite out of the Big Apple.
It’s no secret Hollywood struggles to recapture the magic of beloved family properties. Several of my childhood favorites – Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry especially – have had their innate charms pulverized by the cynism of industry mandates. Far too often, these brands are viewed simply for their monetary value, with the team behind these projects presenting little understanding of what made the properties so beloved.
Thankfully, Paramount’s live-action adaptation of Clifford the Red Dog bucks the all-too-common trend. While modest in its charms, director Walt Becker successfully conjures the positivity and goodwill radiating from its larger-than-life protagonist.
Becker has enjoyed a financially prosperous yet creatively vacant career from his brand of noisily earnest family offerings (Old Dogs and the long-forgotten Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel Road Chip). His servicable competence rarely elicits much excitement, but the director’s cheerful sensibilities make him an apt fit for Clifford’s feel-good material. Becker wisely keeps cloying melodrama to a minimum, utilizing a fast-and-furious pace ample with slapstick pratfalls and warm-hearted character beats to keep kids and adults alike engaged.
I was also surprised by Clifford’s seamless CGI appearance onscreen. The special effects team captures the dog’s affable spirit through a variety of subtle visceral touches (his puppy-dog eyes speak volumes). Becker and his team of five screenwriters also wisely employ New York’s diverse setting to display Clifford’s effortless ability to connect the world around him. Even with a heavy dose of saccharine simplicity, Clifford generates a spirited reminder about positivity and empathy’s undying ability to improve the world around us.
Where most family films feature an all-star cast smugly mugging for their paychecks, Clifford highlights a charming cast of sturdy character actors. TV fixture Jack Whitehall imbues spry comedic timing as Emily’s down-on-his-luck uncle, throwing himself into every cartoonish pratfall with humorous reckless abandon. John Cleese, Tony Hale, and David Alan Grier deliver on their signature appeals, while young star Darby Camp provides a sturdy dramatic presence as the always-affable Emily.
All its strengths still can’t hide Clifford the Red Dog’s numerous deficiencies. The screenplay feels beige in its constructions, unsuccessfully inserting needless conflict through a goofy organization that wants to steal Clifford’s DNA for their products. Between the familiar character archetypes and by-the-numbers narrative formula, there isn’t anything here that kids and adults alike haven’t seen before.
Clifford the Big Red Dog still features a heart as big as its lovable protagonist. A refreshing embrace of sincerity over studio cynicism helps spin an agreeable romp from by-the-numbers conventions.