Clifford the Big Red Dog is the kind of idiotic, mindless, unimaginative, and cynical junk that many parents don't want their children exposed to. I honestly can't think of a worse way to bring this beloved character to the screen. On the page, Clifford and his owner Emily Elizabeth have wholesome adventures in which the oversized pooch learns about various human customs and occasionally gets into a spot of trouble due to his size. Think about what a wonderful movie somebody could make from that. Instead of making that movie, the people behind this travesty have utterly betrayed the concept, burying it under predicable crude humor and a lazy story that builds in the opportunity for unnecessary action sequences.
Jack Whitehall, trying – and failing – to nail the Ryan Reynolds wisecracking vibe, plays Casey. He's a perpetual screw-up who lives in the back of a small moving van. When his sister has to go out of town on business and has no one to watch young daughter Emily (Darby Camp), he gets called to help. One of their first orders of business is to visit an animal rescue tent that has been set up in the middle of the local park. Inside, they meet Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese, playing a character named in honor of Clifford creator Norman Bridwell), a mysterious guy who tries to pawn a red puppy off on them. Casey declines, to Emily's great dismay, but the next morning, she wakes up to find it inside her backpack. For reasons not worth getting into, Emily makes a wish for Clifford to be big and strong. That wish comes true – or at least the first part does.
What follows is adorable shenanigans as the little girl and Casey learn to cope with a dog roughly the size of an elephant, right? Sadly, no. Clifford the Big Red Dog goes the way of far too many lazy family films, introducing a plot about an evil corporation whose head honcho, Tieran (Tony Hale), wants to kidnap Clifford. That corporation is involved in ethically questionable animal experimentation, no less, leading to a fairly disturbing scene involving a goat with two heads. What child wants to watch a charming story about a girl and her canine friend when they can spend 96 minutes worrying that Clifford is going to be harmed instead?
That's not even the biggest mistake the movie makes. The three credited screenwriters – Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway – can't be bothered to come up with actual funny ideas for Clifford. They opt to take the easy road, relying on cheap gags. Clifford pees on a tree with the force of a fire hose, splashing Casey with his urine in the process. He passes gas in a confined space, causing Emily's friend Owen to gag. At the veterinarian's office, there's an argument about who will stick the thermometer up Clifford's backside. We even get the unseemly sight of this gargantuan dog licking his own genital area. And if you guessed there are butt-sniffing jokes, you're absolutely right. Thank goodness the picture at least shows restraint in not having Clifford take a big red dump.
Every beat of the film is utterly predicable, right down to the ending where Emily has to give a sincere, heartfelt speech to a large group of people in order for everything to be okay. At this point in the story, nothing is really okay, yet we're supposed to believe the spunkiness of a little girl will magically fix all the problems. This comes after a ridiculous chase scene involving Emily riding Clifford through New York City while cars chase after them, as well as a bizarre goat attack sequence.
Clifford the Big Red Dog was directed by Walt Becker, a filmmaker whose resume is, shall we say, less than impressive. (He also made Van Wilder, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, and Old Dogs.) Why would he and his writers want to make this film? They obviously have zero appreciation for Norman Bridwell's work. By turning it into this hackneyed, potty humor-filled mess, they disrespect a character that has been beloved by children for decades. The goal was clearly not to make a picture that would enrich your kids' imaginations, it was to capitalize on a familiar property without putting much thought into the adaptation.
Everyone involved in this debacle should be ashamed of themselves.
out of four
Clifford the Big Red Dog is rated PG for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.