Director: Walt Becker
Cast: Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, John Cleese
Runtime: 1 hr 36 mins
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 2 December 2021
Synopsis: When middle-schooler Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) meets a magical animal rescuer (John Cleese) who gifts her a little, red puppy, she never anticipated waking up to find a giant ten-foot hound in her small New York City apartment. While her single mom (Sienna Guillory) is away for business, Emily and her fun but impulsive uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) set out on an adventure that will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat as our heroes take a bite out of the Big Apple. Based on the beloved Scholastic book character, Clifford will teach the world how to love big!
As far as wholesome family entertainment goes, this live-action adaptation of ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ is as warm, funny and fuzzy as it gets.
Those familiar with the source material will know that the character was born in a series of children’s books by author Norman Bridwell, and has since been translated into three popular PBS Kids TV series, a live musical, video games and even a 2004 animated feature. Even so, given how the books themselves were bigger on illustration than on narrative, the screenplay (credited to Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway) would have needed to come up with enough story of its own to fill a feature-length film.
To director Walt Becker and his writers’ credit therefore, it is laudable that their invention is both suitably contemporary and true to the tone of Bridwell’s books. Transporting Clifford and his 8-year-old owner and human friend Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) to modern-day New York, it imagines the latter as a likeably earnest sixth grader whose wish for the former to be big and strong transforms him from a little red puppy into a 10-foot bright red dog.
Having just enrolled at a posh private school and finding that she cannot fit in with the rest of her classmates, Emily immediately laps up Clifford as a friend after encountering him in an animal rescue tent run by a mysterious Mr Bridwell (John Cleese). Following the overnight transformation, the rest of the movie unfolds as a series of wild adventures through the city, including a visit to the vet (Kenan Thompson) to check out his extraordinary growth and a subsequent series of cat-and-mouse games to protect him a greedy bio-tech CEO (Tony Hale), who thinks the secret to his accelerated growth could help his company Lyfgro succeed in its ambition of eradicating world hunger by making food gigantic.
Thankfully, even with the addition of Hale’s stock villain Tieran, the film never descends into a rowdy chase movie; instead, it remains sweet and good-natured all the way through. That is in no small part due to Camp’s preternaturally warm and winning presence; if there was any doubt, Clifford was completely CGI-ed, but you’ll still find yourself won over by the irresistibly endearing bond that develops between him and Emily. On the other hard, that Clifford proves so vividly engaging is credit to the animators, who amp up his expressions without over-doing it, or losing sight of the emotional connection that anchors the movie’s heart in the right place.
Both Clifford and Emily also find good company in her feckless, good-natured uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), whom her mother leaves her in the care of after she is called away to a last-minute business trip in London. As he did in ‘Jungle Cruise’, Whitehall plays it loose and spontaneous here, generating more than his fair share of good-natured laughs alongside Clifford’s antics. Besides Whitehall, the movie has also assembled an ensemble of genuinely funny actors, including David Alan Grier, Rosie Perez, Tovah Feldshuh, Siobahn Fallon Hogan, Alex Moffat and Horatio Sanz.
So despite what we feared about such CGI-critter-meets-live-action comedies, ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ proves unexpectedly winning with its low-key whimsy, never once veering into the sort of loud and wacky territory that its ilk often do. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that you’ll find yourself embarrassed to beat it up, seeing as how sincere and guileless it is, with a well-intentioned message about how difference can ultimately can be a strength. Even if it isn’t particularly original, it is refreshing to find such a sweet and earnest film without any dint of smirk, snark or irony; and in these uncertain times, perhaps that is all we need.
(Warm, fuzzy and funny, this is old-fashioned family fun that you'll cherish during such uncertain times)
Review by Gabriel Chong