Surprisingly, the Clifford the Big Red Dog motion picture is not very good. Based on the popular TV series, famous for starring a big red dog, called Clifford, this film takes that premise and shifts it slightly. This film dares to ask the question: what if this red dog was too big? What if Clifford being a big red dog was the central conflict? It’s a bold decision, and, to be fair, the same logic worked for Paddington Bear, in which his bearness is sufficient for friction. Alas, Clifford the Big Red Dog merely has ‘We Have Paddington at Home’ energy. While your Paddington film includes a fully anthropomorphised bear that can talk and definitely needs to be accepted, Clifford the Big Red Dog features a dog too big for the apartment that he lives in, a dog that scientists should look after and a dog that a twelve year old certainly cannot care for.
Alas, we are expected to be shocked by this. The Clifford movie sets itself up as an origin story, a story of how a red dog became big. Because, he’s red from the beginning, merely incidentally. We start with Clifford getting torn from his litter, a litter of non-red dogs. Clifford, you see, is red. But small. This, seemingly, isn’t an issue. There isn’t a film worthy conflict yet. But, you see, what if there was a New York paralegal, a single mother with a daughter and a rent controlled flat in NYC? What if she had to leave to do some fancy case but her daughter had to stay at school, and what if the only hope of looking after this daughter was this paralegal’s dead beat brother? What if this mother, the paralegal, was also inexplicably British? And what if none of this had anything to do with a dog, never mind a big red dog, yet?
For one moment, the mother’s Britishness seems to make sense, as she is the sister of our adult lead: Jack Whitehall, who is notably British. And then Jack Whitehall speaks and is trying to do an American accent. The accent is atrocious, but the film doubles down on him not being British, including multiple moments where he imitates his sister’s British accent. These moments where a British comedian doing an American accent while pretending to be British are… They are something. So, while the mum is away, the non-British uncle and his niece end up visiting a carnival tent staffed by John Cleese. Yes, the now firmly established as trash public figure, John Cleese. You see, Clifford escaped the place where he evaded capture (double escape), ran across some streets and was caught by John Cleese. Remember, Clifford is currently only red, and not yet big. In this scene, for no real reason, our two main human characters decide to not adopt Clifford.
In the next scene, we learn Clifford, the little Houdini, managed to sneak into the young girls school bag (spending all day in there, unbeknownst to all others, and establishing that Clifford seemingly does not need to breathe). And thus, the young girl becomes the de facto owner of Clifford. Rather than returning this contraband dog, an illegal occupation begins. But, Clifford has a hard time and the uncle doesn’t accept Clifford. So, the kid prays that Clifford could be a big boy. This is our origin story. The next morning Clifford is big. A big red dog.
And thus the bigness becomes the issue. But, in a way that is too convincing. Clifford is too big, and this bigness is alarming in origin. This opens up a bizarre subplot, which becomes the main plot, in which a Tony Hale played CEO is trying to solve world hunger through science. He learns, later on, about Clifford’s existence. This sudden growth in a dog is shocking, and does deserve scientific investigation; therefore, the film frames the person trying to solve world hunger as the villain and the very justifiable quest to investigate this randomly mutated dog as the film’s central evil. So, instead, we focus on the annoying not-British man and his niece as they try, and fail, to look after a giant dog. Sorry, a big dog. A big red dog.
By trying to ground Clifford the Big Red Dog in a real world, the film becomes utter crap. We question our supposed heroes and it is actually rather clear that they shouldn’t be looking after Clifford. Also, there is this bizarre forced conflict in which the young girl’s mother can’t know about the big red dog situation. It is actually frustrating because the big red dog situation is an inconvenience for those in the house also. Rather than hide this dog, that randomly entered their lives and grew, all they need to do is alert somebody. Especially as they are more than willing to walk the big red dog down the street. You know, Clifford, the big red dog.
It is annoying because it is all so pointless. Clifford deserves to be Clifford and in a movie about being Clifford. He doesn’t deserve to be the central conflict, he shouldn’t be the issue. We shouldn’t build up to a scene where a young girl gives a speech about how people hate Clifford because he’s different, a scene in which we keep cutting to specific children when the young (white) girl makes her point. She says you shouldn’t hate the dog because it’s different and the camera mostly jumps to Black children. Hopefully it is deeply inadvertent but it comes across as very uncomfortable. This wouldn’t be conspicuous if it was the only example of poorly handled racial representation in the Clifford the Big Red Dog movie… But it’s not. Now there’s a couple of sentences I never thought I’d have to write.
Primarily, this film is a conceptual failure. A boardroom contrived failure in which we are forced to ally with the people who want to keep a giant dog in an apartment as opposed to those who want to do some harmless (we even see it being attempted, it’s a routine examination) investigation into the wild phenomenon that is a GIANT PUPPY. Oh, and we are also supposed to be against the guy pushing to end world hunger (I feel that bears repeating). But, outside of this, the movie is a consistent failure. The jaunty music grates, the filmmaking is beyond pedestrian, the acting is poor, the giant CG red dog looks weird (super cute at points, but weird). That almost goes without saying. The way actual humans have to interact with a CG dog always looks bad and the entire film is so blandly over lit. It seems like an attempt to normalise the CG but it actually makes everybody, and everything, look fake. So, folks, I have tragic new for you all. It is true what you have heard: the Clifford the Big Red Dog motion picture is bad.