Clifford the Big Red Dog is not good.
Sure, it’s energetic and sincere with a big heart, and it will win kids over. At the end of the day, it’s harmless, and it’s unnecessary to get mad at a harmless movie. So why am I so upset that it isn’t better? Perhaps because if done right, the film could’ve been the next Paddington. Even the next Stuart Little would suffice. Instead, we are saddled with something closer to the next Tom & Jerry.
Before you get what you are here for, that is the big red dog himself, you must first sit through a procedural storyline with human characters. Emily (Darby Camp) has trouble fitting in, in the city of New York. She’s bullied at her private school by your typical Mean Girl, and her mother (Sienna Guillory) isn’t the best at being the parental figure who helps their child, given that the script is waiting to get rid of her by sending her away on a business trip. That’s because the core of Clifford is between Emily and her irresponsible babysitter Casey (Jack Whitehall), who also happens to be her uncle. Along the way, she adopts a small red dog, who she names Clifford. After wishing him to be “big and strong” one night, she wakes up the next morning and… surprise! Clifford’s huge!
We follow Emily and Uncle Casey around, as they try to hide their new “big friend,” and this is all just way too familiar. It reminds me of Hogarth having to hide the Iron Giant around the house, of Hiro having to hide Baymax from his aunt, of Elliot having to hide E.T. We’ve seen this before a hundred times; the film just tries to cover it up with “cute dog” moments.
It also doesn’t help when the movie is just not funny, charming, or witty enough to be memorable. Too many times, the script resorts to butt, pee, and fart jokes for the youngest of audience members to giggle at. As for the jokes made by the adult characters, they miss way more often than they land, trying way too hard to be hip and modern. The result is a plethora of cringe humor that instantly dates itself the second it is said out loud. There is also a distracting amount of adult comedians in the cast; appearances include John Cleese, Kenan Thompson, Russell Peters, David Alan Grier, and Paul Rodriguez.
Despite Camp and Whitehall having occasional moments of good chemistry together, they cannot overpower the mediocre writing. Uncle Casey is conceptualized as a lovable loser, but scene by scene, the script fails to sell the “lovable” part of that description. It’s only made worse when half of his pick-up lines are just creepy and cringeworthy. Even if Emily or another character acknowledges it as cringe, that doesn’t take away my unpleasant experience in watching the scene. As for Emily herself, Camp does her very best with the material. For a 14-year old actress, she sells the most emotional beats in the script, while pretending to interact with a big red dog on screen; a crucial and much-needed asset in the film, since the CGI is… not the best. But her character undergoes the most commonplace arc for a character her age. Be yourself! It’s okay to be different! Not only does Emily learn these messages, but she spouts them out loud to a large crowd at the end of the film. It tries to be sentimental, sincere, and sugary, but it just comes off as hokey and contrived.
The clichés continue when the script needs a villain who threatens to take Clifford away. Enter Tony Hale as the billionaire founder of a genetics company, who wishes to study Clifford’s unnatural growth spurt as a way to help his company thrive. After being overwhelmed with dialogue about feeding the world, growing extra large food, and visuals of giant chicken eggs and two-headed lambs (yes, there’s a two-headed lamb in this movie), you’ll realize that the plot is just complete gobbledygook.
Meanwhile, there’s Clifford. You know, the actual star of the movie who never gets to be the protagonist? Every time the big red dog himself is on screen, the film finds its footing, but even that shaky footing will only appeal to kids.
Many will call Clifford the Big Red Dog “harmless entertainment,” a children’s movie that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It’s colorful, noisy, and full of ridiculous set pieces (some dog-related, others not). Admittedly, it’s an overly sincere movie. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions, the storytelling bar shouldn’t be set this low. Despite the premise and beloved IP, the film settles with some of the laziest writing and unfunny jokes you’ll see all year. Worst of all, it’s just predictable and too familiar. You don’t have to watch Clifford the Big Red Dog and I can tell you you’ve already seen it.
Clifford the Big Red Dog will be in theaters and on Paramount+ November 10, 2021.
Photo: Paramount Pictures