Clifford the Big Red Dog hits cinemas and Paramount Plus on Nov. 10.
From the outset, it’s clear that Clifford the Big Red Dog probably wouldn’t exist without the charming crossover success of Paddington. Both films attempt to adapt iconic kids characters for the big screen and feature unexpected creatures going on fish-out-of-water journeys in whimsical city settings. While Clifford the Big Red Dog has lofty dreams, it never quite reaches the charming heights of Paddington. But it does offer up a whimsy-filled and easy-to-watch kids movie that will likely entertain the youngest of us and, most importantly, those who can get over the uncanny valley of Clifford himself.
The story starts as so many do: in a big city. New York, to be precise. There, Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) lives in a fairytale apartment adorned with murals, under the care of her harried but loving single mother, Maggie (Sienna Guillory). Her block is filled with eccentric and caring neighbors. When Maggie is called away to another city by her job, Emily is left with her irresponsible and often gross uncle, Casey (Jack Whitehall). In classic terrible movie uncle style, Casey takes her to a magical animal rescue tent run by the sharply dressed yet ominous Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese). Soon, the pair are the carers of a seemingly tiny — and scarily animated — red labrador puppy. When Emily wishes he was big enough so no one could separate them, she wakes up to the giant red dog that every child knows and loves. Here, though, he’s not charmingly illustrated, but instead a hyperreal-looking CGI creation. At first, the CGI puppy is not a particularly pleasant sight.
Luckily for Clifford himself and the movie, the uncanny valley is far worse in the short amount of time that he’s small. In his large version, he’s far cuter and less menacingly proportioned. It also helps that Camp is a ball of charm and sweetness. Anyone who’s seen her work in Big Little Lies will know she’s got the chops to carry a hefty storyline, but she’s just as talented at comedy. Even in the face of a giant digital dog, her performance is believable and, more importantly, watchable. Her young on-screen co-star Izaac Wang — who plays her friend from school, Owen — is also great. Together, they make a pair you can root for as the inevitable threat of an evil corporation, led here by Tony Hale as Tieran, comes into play.
Clifford, Emily, and Owen often outshine the core cast of adults. Whitehall seems like a particular mismatch, playing Casey as more of a grimy frat boy than a struggling illustrator. At one point we even see him put hand sanitizer down his pants before a job interview… which is not the film’s finest moment. As Casey, Whitehall brings an outdated gross-out comedy element to a movie that’s at its best when it leans into the magical. A great example of this is the ease with which New Yorkers accept Clifford, something that’s key to the original stories and the film. This is a world where a city will come together to protect a giant red canine while supporting and protecting the little girl who loves him. Whitehall’s Casey upends those fun, powerful, and kind moments, going for broad comedy relief that misses more often than it hits.
There’s a certain amount of butt sniffing and general butt-focused jokes that come with making a kids movie about a giant dog, and if that’s what you’re here for, then Clifford the Big Red Dog delivers. It swerves between thoughtful writing about friendship and the role of neighborhood community to jokes about taking Clifford’s temperature, and we’re not talking orally. That mishmash will likely stop the film from going down in family movie history, but it will also engage adults just enough and make small kids laugh a lot. There’s also a couple of unexpected cameos from folks like Rosie Perez and Kenan Thompson.
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Although it definitely takes from stronger movies like the aforementioned Paddington, and Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant environmental fable Okja, Clifford the Big Red Dog puts a solid focus on the concept of coming together and friendship, which makes it feel a little less derivative. Even so, it never comes close to either of those big hitters and is definitely more of your standard kids comedy fair. Saying all that, though, if you’ve got a couple of kids running around who want some laughs and like animals, you could definitely do worse than putting on Clifford the Big Red Dog. After all, kids are never too young to learn that corporations are evil and community is everything! Thanks, Clifford.