Clifford the Big Red Dog, Everybody Love Him

Clifford’s silence makes everybody so delighted. You can imagined the version of this narrative that was undoubtedly sold in an elevator, in which Clifford slings pop culture references like Poochie on “The Simpsons,” while watching the wonderfully sweet and hard-to-hate “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” It reminded us that the method taken here—empowering and heartwarming—was wiser than trying to cash in on a current pop culture fad, as many modern family films do.

In fact, Walt Becker’s interpretation of the famous children’s book reminded me of the Disney clamshell VHS tapes that were so prevalent in my childhood in the 1980s. It doesn’t feel unduly deliberate or cynical, like those films, which makes its imperfections easy to overlook. Clifford himself is awkward and difficult to control, so it’s understandable that the movie about him has some of the same flaws, and most kids won’t think twice about it (or ponder how much worse it would have been if the big red guy talked).

Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), a bright and kind student, is an outsider at her new prestigious New York private school. The 12-year-old is teased by cruel girls who refer to her as “food stamps,” yet she and her single mother Maggie have a lovely, rent-controlled apartment to return to (Sienna Guillory). When Emily’s mother travels out of town on some unspecified paralegal business, she begs her ne’er-do-well brother Casey (a hilarious Jack Whitehall) to keep a watch on her, keep her out of trouble and keep watch the movie at 123Movies.

One day, Emily and Uncle Casey are out walking when they come across an animal carnival run by the enigmatic Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), a tribute to the source material’s creator, Norman Bridwell. Emily is led by the Wizard of Oz through his tent of magical creatures to a room where she meets Clifford, who is depicted as a little, charming, and slightly creepily portrayed puppy. Clifford as a puppy appears to be more realistic than Clifford as a giant for some reason. Perhaps it’s because we have a better understanding of what puppies should look like than dogs the size of small buildings, but the puppy Clifford is an odd choice, a cartoonish construct that never appears to be sharing space with Emily. He’s about as convincing as Roger Rabbit in terms of movie creatures.

Casey tells Emily that she must return the tiny red fellow the next day after Clifford sneaks home with her, leaving the poor girl to bed wondering that something would change. Clifford, the huge, expressive, joyful red dog that librarians know and love, greets her as she wakes up. Casey panics, and the plot of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” revolves around “Clifford shenanigans,” as one might imagine. They try to keep him hidden from the grumpy super (David Alan Grier); he winds up at school, where he kisses the cruel girl into future trauma; and he even saves a life. Nothing about it is particularly memorable, but it isn’t quite as irritating as it could have been. Even the scenes with huge dog slobber have a light touch. I’ve seen more lengthy family films as a parent of three than most non-parents are probably aware of, and Becker keeps “Clifford the Big Red Dog” moving.

It’s also reflective of the film’s great heart. Yes, some of it appears to be crudely done, and a few of the gags will be too much for parents and children, but it’s such a big-hearted film in every moment. “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a classic story about how people react to differences, yet it has a kind heart that shines through when it matters. “He doesn’t hurt anybody—he loves,” Emily says. And it’s simple to adore him back.

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