Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 2, 2022)
Back in 1963, Norman Bridwell’s Clifford, The Big Red Dog introduced the title character, an enormous canine. Though this property received various televised adaptations over the decades, not until 2021's Clifford the Big red Dog did the oddly tinted pooch hit movie screens.
Born to a stray mother, Clifford’s siblings all get taken to the pound while he finds himself left behind by accident. New to her middle school, Emily Elizabeth Howard gets bullied by her snobby peers, but she makes a new friend when she meets Clifford at an animal adoption event.
There Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) tells Emily her pup will grow dependent on how much love he receives. Her intense affection for Clifford causes him to immediately grow to 10 feet in height, a factor that creates a mix of issues.
With Clifford, we find a piece of family entertainment that will seem familiar to adults. It takes the genre’s modern-day template and exemplifies it.
When I was a youngster back in the 1970s, “kids movies” didn’t work too hard to appeal to adults. Not that they didn’t attempt some form of fodder for the grown-ups who chaperoned their offspring, but they nonetheless focused on the target audience to the exclusion of most else.
Perhaps after 1990s Disney flicks like Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story showed an ample adult audience for “kids movies”, this began to change. Over the last 20 years, films that previously would’ve stayed firmly in the “kids movies” domain broadened to become… sassier and more “adult-oriented”.
To a degree, that is. Basically this means modern-day “kids movies” come with references and jokes that youngsters won’t get as well as a snarkier attitude, all in an attempt to deliver material for a broader age group.
Which seems fine, especially given that I now reside waaaay outside the youthful target. If I gotta watch these flicks, I appreciate the attempts to placate/entertain old folks like me.
Sort of. Although movies like Clifford do manage some wit and cleverness that works for oldsters, these stabs can feel a bit cynical and make me wish the Hollywood would just make kids movies for kids.
Or maybe I’m just old and jaded, as I might sound too harsh. As contrived as the adult-oriented aspects of Clifford can feel, at least they give the movie some amusement value for grownups.
Again, to a degree, as it appears unlikely adults will ever choose to watch Clifford unless accompanied by youngsters. Although the film boasts decent entertainment for grownups, it never branches out to become truly satisfying for that age group.
Like many modern-day “family films”, Clifford boasts a cast of folks who adults will recognize and theoretically appreciate. In addition to Cleese, we find “names” such as David Alan Grier, Tony Hale, Rosie Perez, Kenan Thompson, Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez, and others.
Do any of these veterans elevate the pedestrian material? No, but their comedic skills manage to bring a bit of spark to proceedings that could easily turn limp.
These folks also mean we get vaguely “adult” jokes along the way. Actually, we don’t find many gags that will go over the heads of the kids, but the film’s humor leans snarky enough to make the comedy mildly appealing to grown-ups.
Unfortunately, all of this comes in the service of a badly muddled narrative. Really, Clifford should just tell the tale of a girl and her ginormous dog as they go through various wacky situations, but the movie instead attempts a slew of contrived “plot points”.
These fail to integrate well. The story beats don’t mesh and they give the movie a confused vibe that means it fails to coalesce.
Also, the computer-generated representation of Clifford himself becomes a major issue. Of course, the movie needed to use visual effects to create a 10-foot-tall dog, but apparently the flick’s budget mostly went to Tony Hale’s toupee, as Clifford looks wholly unconvincing.
Given that Clifford spends so much time onscreen, this becomes an issue. Not since 2020’s Call of the Wild have we found a less beliveable portrayal of a canine in a feature film.
Messy narrative and flawed CG aside, Clifford becomes a perfectly watchable 96 minutes of family entertainment. However, one shouldn’t expect anything especially creative or clever, as it seems wholly average.