Sweet kid, lovable dog, but uneven script in 'Clifford'

  • A vet (a funny Kenan Thompson), left, has never seen a dog quite like Clifford in "Clifford the Big Red Dog," also starring Casey (Jack Whitehall), Emily (Darby Camp) and Owen (Izaac Wang).

    A vet (a funny Kenan Thompson), left, has never seen a dog quite like Clifford in "Clifford the Big Red Dog," also starring Casey (Jack Whitehall), Emily (Darby Camp) and Owen (Izaac Wang). Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

  • Casey (Jack Whitehall), left, Emily (Darby Camp), Owen (Izaac Wang) and Clifford share a meal in "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

    Casey (Jack Whitehall), left, Emily (Darby Camp), Owen (Izaac Wang) and Clifford share a meal in "Clifford the Big Red Dog." Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

  • Casey (Jack Whitehall) gets a bit of a shock when seeing Clifford in "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

    Casey (Jack Whitehall) gets a bit of a shock when seeing Clifford in "Clifford the Big Red Dog." Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

 
 
Posted11/11/2021 6:00 AM

"Clifford the Big Red Dog" - ★ ★

It's really not that complicated. Kids love dogs. Dogs love kids. Separate them at your peril.

 

So despite obvious efforts to link the beloved "Clifford" story, about a huge dog and the little girl who loves him, to a bigger and more current message in the CGI-meets-live action "Clifford the Big Red Dog," it really isn't necessary. You had us at "Clifford."

On some levels the film, directed by Walt Becker, understands this, giving us plenty of lovely, warmhearted scenes between Clifford and young Emily Elizabeth (an appealing Darby Camp) that show it knows its core audience: young children. And for them, it will work fine.

For older viewers, though, it may be hard to ignore some of the clunkier moments of a script that, in trying to update a story created in 1963, gets in its own way with sweet but awkward dialogue.

First, though, the dog. For those who worried that the CGI version of Clifford wouldn't look real, rest assured that it's fine. He's big, he's red, he's furry, he's sweet.

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And the cast is game, led by sweetly-but-not-obnoxiously precocious Camp and rakishly likable British comedian Jack Whitehall as Emily's ne'er-do-well Uncle Casey.

There are also a bunch of "Saturday Night Live" actors in cameos -- with the funniest, not surprisingly, coming from the gifted Kenan Thompson as a veterinarian tasked with examining Clifford. (How does one take the temperature of a Tyrannosaurus-sized pup? He doesn't know, either.)

Emily is older here than the little girl in the original book and PBS animated series; she's a sixth-grader, and a new student at an elite Manhattan academy on Fifth Avenue. She lives a subway ride uptown with her mother, a harried, single mom, in what the production notes call a "quaint Harlem apartment," but is actually huge, airy and comfy -- it can hide Clifford! Still, at Emily's posh school, which she attends on scholarship -- having moved "from upstate" -- she feels alone, and the resident Mean Girl calls her "Food Stamp." Is this an actual middle-school insult, or something a group of grown-up writers came up with but forgot to test on kids?

In any case, this jarring economic diss feels way crueler than anything uttered by the film's purported villain, a slimy entrepreneur (Tony Hale) who wants to replicate Clifford's DNA to create giant food, feed the world and presumably get rich.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory) goes away for business, leaving brother Casey in charge. One morning he and Emily stop at a strange pop-up animal rescue tent run by mysterious Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese). The man shows them a tiny, red abandoned puppy. Emily is besotted. How big does he get, she asks? "That depends on how much you love him," Bridwell replies.

Casey says no to adopting the pup. But Clifford somehow sneaks into Emily's backpack. When, that evening, she cuddles him and wishes they could both be big and strong, Clifford takes this literally. By morning, he's a giant.

Not surprisingly, Clifford develops an Instagram presence. That gets the attention of our aforementioned villain. But he and his shady guys with earpieces have nothing against the ragtag Dream Team of Emily, her adorable friend Owen (Izaac Wang), Casey, and neighborhood friends. Even a well-meaning gazillionaire fails to save Clifford but, in the end, we all know, the spunky kid will triumph.

• • •

Starring: Darby Camp, Izaac Wang, Jack Whitehall, John Cleese, Tony Hale

Directed by: Walt Becker

Other: A Paramount Pictures release. In theaters and on Paramount+. Rated PG for impolite humor, mature thematic elements and mild action. 96 minutes

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