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Clifford the Big Red Dog is one of those movies where it’s hard to pinpoint who was really looking forward to and clamoring for this to be made. It’s based on the classic Scholastic books by Norman Bridwell going all the way back to 1963, so loads of people of all ages probably grew up with these books at least in their surrounding realm of influence, while many others might’ve also enjoyed the PBS cartoon. When people think of Scholastic, they tend to think of Clifford, as he’s even the brand’s official mascot and an icon in his own right.
So we “finally” get a live-action movie about Clifford, though “finally” is doing a lot of extra work there. This is the latest film coming out in both theaters and on Paramount+, as Paramount clearly still wants to try whatever they can to boost their streaming service in the wake of the latest SpongeBob movie from earlier this year and all their other original content geared toward families.
Originally, Universal had their sights on a movie about Clifford in conjunction with Illumination back in 2012, but they ultimately cancelled it, and it’s easy to see why with this late effort from director Walt Becker, who previously made Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, but also Van Wilder and Wild Hogs, amusingly enough.
The film stars Darby Camp (who you might recognize from Big Little Lies) as Emily Elizabeth Howard, a 12-year-old girl who’s recently moved to New York with her mother, played by Sienna Guillory. Sadly, Emily’s struggling to make friends and stand up for herself against the school bully, who is honestly one of the most embarrassingly written mean girls in a film with a budget more than $1 million—in a movie this cringeworthy, even this element manages to stand out.
Emily’s not-so-high-stakes fortunes change when she and her hapless uncle (played by Jack Whitehall) come across a red puppy that takes to her immediately and could be the key to building up her confidence. The only catch is that for mysterious reasons, Clifford suddenly becomes much bigger, though noticeably not as big in the books because, well, this is New York and a $64 million budget can only do so much and it shows.
Clifford himself can’t talk like he does in the cartoon, which is fine because at least that’s how it is in the books. But one issue with the film is how empty of a character this big, red dog is. It really is just an hour and a half of watching a dog do normal dog things while being large, and everyone around him simply gawks and records it on their phones. Riveting. The story isn’t terrible, and there are even a handful of clever jokes to be found, but there are bizarre plot mistakes littered throughout that even a child only half paying attention might be able to notice and maybe even scoff at.
The supporting cast is operating on an almost entertaining level of Sesame Street energy, to the point where I half expected Muppets to show up playing Tony Hale’s henchman. Hale, by the way, plays a superb villain and is one of the few characters here who really fits the “anything goes” vibe this Clifford movie seems to be aiming for. There are other actors here who should be doing anything else instead of this, especially Rosie Perez, who gets an awkward scene and disappears despite the fact that she’s Rosie Perez.
Yet despite all that, it’s oddly hard to stay mad at a movie like Clifford the Big Red Dog for all its blunders. Much like Clifford himself, you can’t help but find the whole thing adorable, and I only half mean that as a condescending pejorative. There’s nothing special here beyond an opportunity for fans of the character across generations to bond over a new story about Clifford, flimsy and inadequate as it is, perhaps reigniting an interest in the long, colorful history of this character through other mediums. If we do get another movie about this lovable red dog, the least these filmmakers can do is make the dog big.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is now playing in theaters and is available to stream on Paramount+.