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In 1963, Clifford (a large red dog) was born when the editor of children’s books invited the cartoonist Norman Bridwell to come up with a story that would accompany one of his drawings. Inspired by the author’s wife and daughter, the adventures of Clifford and his faithful companion Emily Elizabeth survived a long series of children’s books and an additional PBS animated series. Now the long-hatched version of the live action movie is finally riding into town. The result is a cute, serious movie that doesn’t have laughter or irony, but instead conveys a childish spirit that lets us buy into the sight of a giant, crimson Labrador racing through Central Park for an inflatable zorb (remember those?)
The film is directed by Walt Becker, famous for Ryan Reynolds’ Van Wilder car and the old star comedies Wild Boars and Old Dogs. Clifford is a refreshing departure from this grinning comedy. Written by Jay Sherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway, “The Big Red Dog Clifford” has a decidedly innocent call for a comeback. Composer John Debney’s delusional score is a constant reminder that this is a film for children, although it is likely that parents will enjoy it too. While other children’s films move into noisy and wacky territory, “Clifford” falls into a softer and more moving register. This film is so ingenuous and well-meaning that it would be like kicking a puppy to beat it up.
It also helps that Clifford’s CG partner, Emily Elizabeth, is played by the precocious actress Darby Camp, best known for her role as the wise Chloe in Big Little Lies, in which she taught TV mom Reese Witherspoon the nuances of Leon Bridges’ Melody. Camp can sell his emotional connection with a huge scarlet student in the midst of all the chaos, who holds the heart of the film in the right place.
Emily Elizabeth is new to NYC’s posh private school, bullied by her classmates and desperate for a friend. When she and her unfortunate uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) stumble upon an animal rescue tent run by the magical Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), she is immediately picked up with a tiny, bright red puppy. Despite Casey’s protests, the dog somehow ends up in her backpack, and when Clifford explodes to an elephantine size, it sets off a series of wild adventures around the city. Emily and Casey try to hunt down Bridwell with Clifford in tow, while an insidious geneticist entrepreneur (Tony Hale) sets off in pursuit of the colossal carmine dog and its unique DNA.
Clifford isn’t too joking, but it has enough really funny actors (including who’s who of Saturday Night Live) to keep it weirdly funny. Filling smaller roles with the likes of David Alan Greer, Rosie Perez, Tova Feldshuch, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Moffat, Horatio Sans, and more helps make this movie more fun than expected. The biggest laugh comes from the scene where Kenan Thompson, playing a bewildered veterinarian, puzzledly tries to examine the monstrous dog.
With a surprisingly progressive message of a tight-knit community protecting one of its own from technical glitches and aggressive police, “Big Red Dog Clifford” carries a cunning and insightful message in this cute fairy tale for kids (Clifford’s big ruby tail is pretty cute too).
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.
‘Big red dog Clifford’
Rating: PG, for impolite humor, thematic elements and gentle action
Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes
Plays: Kicks off November 10 in general release; also at Paramount +