Just Like Its Central Characters ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ Has A Big Heart And Honors Its Origins – Review
It’s easy to remember the early Saturday mornings I’d spend cycling through the PBS Kids catalogue. There was something sacred about the exciting animal adventures the Kratt Brothers led in Zoboomafoo or grooving along with The Electric Company–even the spoiled, whiny, bald-headed star of Caillou claimed my attention. However, standing above the rest, I never failed to miss an entry to the loving friendship between Emily Elizabeth and her big red dog. The original series–book and otherwise–boasted messages of love and acceptance using the unconditional love of pets to communicate that to its young audience.
When the live-action adaptation was announced, I couldn’t help but anticipate the worst, the botching of the heart and soul of this childhood memory that meant so much to me. I would hold onto that expectation until I’d seen it. About halfway through my viewing of Clifford the Big Red Dog, I realized I was smiling that same unabashed, joyous smile I had on those precious Saturday mornings.
Clifford the Big Red Dog has a simple enough story; middle school student, Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), crosses paths with a strange red puppy who grows ten times his size overnight. With the help of her irresponsible Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) and her adorkable schoolmate, Owen (Izaac Wang), Emily must try to find the source of Clifford’s magical growth or risk losing her new best friend forever. It’s a story about the importance of loving despite differences and the beauty of acceptance. I had a great time with it!
Walt Becker, the director of Clifford the Big Red Dog, also directed Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (the fourth of that franchise and admittedly my favourite). When I finished Clifford, I couldn’t help but consider why his entries in these “live-action remakes of childhood cartoons” franchises worked for me. See, most of these adaptations try to ground these characters and stories in reality, limiting everything to what we can do with the logic of Earth (which is admittedly not much) and losing the whimsy and heart found in their original stories. Becker doesn’t do this. What made The Road Chip work for me was how much they embraced the cartoon origins of the characters, right down to their designs which are noticeably less hyper-realistic. Similarly, Clifford isn’t here to explain the science behind a red dog or why he gets big because that’s not the movie’s point. There is magic in this movie–STRAIGHT UP MAGIC–and while some may see that as lazy, I think it’s brilliant.
Too often do these adaptations try to tell us why talking chipmunks and little blue elves exist in our world with logic without realizing the more important “why” to answer is why these properties meant so much to so many people. Why did Clifford: The Big Red Dog steal the attention of 10-year-olds like me all those years ago? Well, it is the heart of the relationships and those themes of love interwoven with characters we loved too. It’s because we saw our pets in Clifford and know what it’s like having that kind of best friend, and with that comes the heart and soul of the series. The team behind this adaptation put the heart and soul of the original series at the forefront, reminding the audience it’s okay not to question the logic of what’s happening, just live in the adventure with these characters. The creative team was determined to respect Clifford‘s origins, and that made it all the more entertaining.
The cast did a great job in their respective roles. I got genuine laughs out of Jack Whitehall’s character. Tony Hale does a great job as the tech-lab scientist, hell-bent on getting his hands on Clifford. And, John Cleese’s magical Mister Birdwell oozes charm in all of his scenes. Weirdly enough, the only scene that took me out of this movie was Kenan Thompson’s cameo as the vet who checks on Clifford. I could get behind magic dog turning giant because of love, but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to believe a professional veterinarian wouldn’t put a thermometer up Clifford’s butt–it’s his job. That aside, the world they build here is spirited and energetic. I loved all the different members of Emily’s neighbourhood and how they all seem crucial to the world they live in. We also can’t forget the puppeteers who acted as Clifford’s stand-in on set. Even in an interview with Izaac Wang, he admitted he had trouble believing that wasn’t a living dog, and that’s all the skills of those puppeteers.
This movie is nothing short of a larger-than-life adventure that maintains the heart of the original series. It’s got the same flaws as most movies of its nature, but none of them change the fact that I was smiling from ear to ear by the end of it. Clifford: The Big Red Dog is just a ton of fun with a beautiful, heartwarming message at its core summed up by Emily Elizabeth in the final minutes of the movie.
If you find the time and means (in theatres or on Paramount+), round up the family, pets included, and let yourself get wrapped up in the wonder. Let yourself return to the 10-year-old in your pajamas understanding the unconditional love of a middle schooler and her big red dog.