I’m just going to come right out and say it: Clifford the Big Red Dog is better than Dune. Now, as you all prepare to load your shotguns and revoke my film criticism license, allow me a few minutes to explain myself and get a headstart.
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Clifford the Big Red Dog
Director: Walt Becker
Release Date: November 10, 2021 (Theatrical/Paramount+)
There’s something to be said about a movie being reliable. Sometimes you want to see movies take big swings and big risks, telling stories that you’ve never seen before. While I have nothing against those movies, there’s also something to be said about the movies that know what they’re trying to be and keep their expectations in check. Clifford the Big Red Dog is a middle-of-the-road family movie, and that’s perfectly alright.
The film centers on Emily (Darby Camp), who comes across a mysterious old man named Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) who gifts her with a cute little red puppy she names Clifford. But oh no! The puppy becomes huge overnight and with the help of her man-child of an uncle, Casey (Jack Whitehall), she’s going to try and make Clifford small again so she can keep him and keep Clifford away from the… evil biotech corporation that wants to experiment on him. Because of course there’s an evil company that wants to capture him! Is that now just the short-hand for generic bad guys? I mean, I’m okay with it, but still.
The gags in Clifford the Big Red Dog are ones you’ve seen a million times before in any family movie. There’s slapstick, wacky side characters each with a singular gimmick, pee and poop jokes, and some cute and inoffensive one-liners. There’s a certain charm that some of these scenes have despite being absolutely rock stupid. There’s an old lady who drinks condensed milk and later knocks out a security guard with it, claiming she was able to do so because condensed milk is condensed, meaning it’s heavier. I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s so stupid it’s actually good. Was this an intentionally stupid line? Probably, but it made me genuinely laugh, which is rare nowadays.
There’s a lot of stupid in Clifford the Big Red Dog. The movie starts up with whimsical narration about there being magic in the world no matter where you live, only for the movie to cut to the magical land of Harlem, New York. So for the entire film, I just couldn’t get the magical land of Harlem out of my mind. I admit that those stupid moments are probably way funnier to me since I saw this with some friends. We had fun making snide comments and laughing our asses off at moments that were probably meant to be taken seriously. Sometimes you gotta be with the right people to really enjoy a movie.
Even so, there are legitimately serious moments in this film and they actually work. You do feel the sadness in certain scenes where Emily and Clifford are bonding with each other and Emily confides in Clifford about how she’s being bullied at school. You can tell that there is some heart to the film and those moments land. It’s weird since the movie seems to be fighting against itself between being a heartfelt movie about a girl and her dog while also being a madcap comedy where people chase a giant dog across the magical land of Harlem. They don’t really gel with each other too often.
What really doesn’t gel in the movie is the CG they did for Clifford. There are some dog movies where the filmmakers are able to make a dog seem like they’re a natural part of the world. Clifford the Big Red Dog does not do this. Yeah, I know what I’m saying, the giant red dog doesn’t look realistic in live-action, big surprise, but he rarely looks like he’s actually in the room with other people. The actors are selling the idea that a giant red dog is in the same room as them but the moment you actually see him on screen, no performance can sell just how fake he is.
It’s strange because all of that doesn’t really matter to me at the end of the day. As far as family movies go, I think there’s a nice message to be had here. It’s not cynical and doesn’t feel like a commercial cash grab in the slightest. Granted, I don’t know why, exactly, anyone would want to make a Clifford the Big Red Dog movie in 2021, so it simply feels like an odd movie in today’s market. It’s a throwback to what live-action family movies were like well over a decade ago. It makes sense given that the director, Walt Becker, directed one of the Alvin and the Chipmunk movies and the writers also wrote The Smurfs 2. Clifford the Big Red Dog feels dated and it’s only just released.
No matter what I do, however, I can’t really hate this film. I can’t deny the fact that I had fun with it, and it wasn’t even because me and two other full-grown adults decided to spend our Wednesday night mocking Clifford the Big Red Dog in theaters in front of children. There were some funny jokes in the film, a few heartwarming moments here and there, and a sense that the creators wanted to do right by Clifford. On the other hand, you do have some exceptionally lazy CG and a general feeling that this probably shouldn’t have been a theatrical release. I won’t say that this is a good movie, not by a long shot, but it was an enjoyable one.
There was even a scene of dog cannibalism. I don’t know where else to put that, but Clifford eats another dog. That’s pretty metal. (Ed. Note: What the hell?)
The kids in my theater liked Clifford the Big Red Dog and it’s not hard to see why. It’s harmless, safe fun that, at the end of the day, was able to entertain. No, it’s not going to light anyone’s world on fire, but did you ever expect Clifford the Big Red Dog to do that? Take your kid to see it and they’ll like it for all of the right reasons. Parents will find something to like too, even if both you and your kid will forget about it in a week.