Big and red are just two words to describe the four-legged giant of children’s literature that is Clifford the Big Red Dog. This is the beloved canine creation of author Norman Bridwell. A star of no fewer than eighty books, between 1963 and 2015, Clifford is the lovable, clumsy and loyal companion of young Emily Elizabeth Howard. He’s also the star of Walt Becker’s brand new Hollywood franchise launcher. This isn’t Clifford’s first foray into cinema but it marks his debut in live action and his biggest budget to date. As it goes, the film’s a charmer and should leave fans seeing red for only the right reasons.
Becker is no stranger to defying that old adage to work neither with children or animals. Indeed, the director’s would be hit list to date includes Robin Williams flop Old Dogs and 2015’s dire fourth entry in the Alvin and the Chipmunks series. A brave but misguided soul it must be said. And yet, in Clifford the Big Red Dog, Becker finally strikes gold. Or, rather, red. This one’s leaps and bounds ahead of irritating, squeaky rodents. Sure, the plot is rote and the flaws glaring but when the child is this good and the animal so endearing, how can you go wrong?
Clifford harkens to a vintage era of family cinema. While there are hues of Paul King’s Paddington in the film’s multicultural credentials and inclusive ideology, this Big Red comedy tonally recalls more so the likes of nineties favourites Beethoven, Stuart Little and 101 Dalmations. It’s all hijinks and shenanigans. Inevitable sequences see Clifford cause havoc everywhere from a city block apartment to the local park. There’s a nasty profit-hunting company to be beaten and a hapless uncle to be dragged a long for the ride. Heck, the film practically writes itself. The one difference here – that which sets Clifford apart from the pack – is the oversizing of the pup himself. Bigger is rarely better by default but it’s an opportune premise nonetheless.
We open in a Manhattan warehouse. Clifford is the ugly duckling in a litter of golden cuties. Not least because the CGI is a tad off the mark in his realisation. When Clifford inadvertently evades entrapment by a team of dog catchers, a brief spell of jaywalking soon sees him fall into the hands of the mysterious Mr. Bridwell (a rather poor show by John Cleese).
Elsewhere in the Big Apple, twelve year old Emily (Darby Camp – excellent) is lonely, bullied and lost. She’s a tryhard scholarship student at a super posh middle school and daughter of Sienna Guillory’s paralegal Maggie. When Maggie is called away on a buisness trip to Chicago, Emily’s worst fears come true when she’s left in the hapless hands of Uncle Casey. He’s played by Jack Whitehall, whose valuable charm is rather offset by an American accent that never quite settles in one state. What Emily really needs is a companion. A best friend to teach her the meaning of love. What Emily needs, is Clifford. By some remarkable coincidence, Emily is exactly what Clifford needs too.
It’s a magic teardrop that turns Emily’s little red pup into the biggun we’re all waiting to see and the film takes flight from there. A script by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway never feels sharp enough to garner belly laughs as big as their lead – who, admittedly, shifts in size from scene to scene – but the chuckles come thick and fast. Maybe Clifford’s no Paddington but, as a second Covid beleaguered Christmas looms, he should prove a welcome addition to the multiplex for families in need of a little magic through the holidays.