“Clifford the Big Red Dog” is simple, a sometimes silly little nothing of a kids’ movie, lightweight and harmless and of no great consequence whatsover.
But it’s got sight gags and giant dog slobber jokes, giant dog farts and giant dog weeing-on-trees humor. So the littlest viewers, for whom it is intended, will find a laugh here and there.
It’s based more on the version of Clifford from Norman Bridwell’s 80 books aimed at not-quite-readers and the parents who read to them. Clifford doesn’t speak, as he did in the PBS TV series or assorted videos made about him over the years. Because having a gigantic, bright red digitally-animated dog also speak would have been…too far-fetched?
Emily Elizabeth, the little girl who adopts him, lives on Manhattan, not Bridwell Island, and is 12 — a sixth-grader — not an eight year-old as in the books. But much of the humor still comes from Clifford’s enormous size and how others adjust to that, reinforcing a message of “It’s OK to be different and stand out.”
What Paramount, “Van Wilder” director Walt Becker and screenwriters who have “Norbit,” “Vampires vs. the Bronx” and “I Spy” among their credits give us is a standard issue “origin story,” telling the tale of how Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp), here a Harlem-dwelling white child with a British paralegal Mum (Sienna Guillory), came to have The Big Red Dog in her life.
Emily Elizabeth is bullied at the posh private school Mum sends her to. “Food Stamps,” the richer mean girls call her. In her neighborhood, the married couple Black lawyers (Bear Allen-Blaine, Keith Ewell), the Anglo-Indian neighbor who wants to be a magician (Russell Peters) and guys at the bodega (Horatio Sanz and Paul Rodriguez) may adore her. And her building’s cranky super (David Alan Grier) might tolerate her.
But at school, she’s alone and lonely.
She has this irresponsible Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall of “Jungle Cruise” and TV’s “Bad Education”) whom Mom gets to babysit Emily Elizabeth when she has work out of town. Emily Elizabeth doesn’t care for Jack. He’s not good at caring for kids.
“I lost you ONE time! OK, TWICE, if you count ‘Atlantic City. And I won you BACK, didn’t I?”
Casey lives in an old panel truck because he can’t find work as an illustrator. But a weekend of childcare in Big Sis’s apartment? Sure. It’ll be a cinch.
As they pass by Bridwell’s Animal Rescue tent, parked conveniently on the private school’s grounds, the charming Doolittle-eccentric Brit (John Cleese) who invites them in figures a pet is just what Emily E needs. A Capuchin monkey? A snake? A “stand-up chameleon?”
What about this bright red puppy? “How big will be get?”
“That depends on how much you love him.”
I don’t recall that line from the books, so if our trio of screenwriters came up with it, hat’s off to you lads. That’s a lovely, child-friendly way of explaining how the pooch, slipped into Emily Elizabeth’s backpack so that she won’t know and Uncle Jack can’t protest and the super can’t evict them before Mom gets home, grows and grows overnight the very first night he sleeps in his little girl’s bed.
Emily Elizabeth’s heartfelt wish, that she and Clifford could be “big and strong and the world can’t hurt us,” comes true.
The plot from that point on is sight gags involving the over-sized, shoe-chewing puppy and everybody else’s reaction to him, from Casey’s “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to Burning Man” to the locals — “It’s New York. Nobody’ll even notice.“
And it being the 21st century, somebody’s going to get video of Clifford, it’ll go viral and a big genetically-modified-organism (GMO) bio-engineering tycoon (Tony Hale) will want this super-sized dog for “experiments.”
As you can tell from that cast, diversity and inclusion were bywords when turning “Clifford” into a New York story. Emily Elizabeth takes on a Chinese-American sidekick (Izaac Wang) from school, and his rich businessman/father (Russell Wong) has a Chinese solution to their “problem,” moving Clifford to China.
But the script gives a pretty talented line-up of co-stars little that’s cute or funny to say or do. Grier in particular is wasted in his role. Tovah Feldshuh, vamping it up as a Russian neighbor, makes an impression. And Kenan Thompson has a funny cameo as an unflappable vet who needs to “take his temperature,” and tries to get Casey to do it for him.
Cleese twinkles, something no one who remembers his early comedy could have predicted. Hale tries to live up to being the villain. But there’s just not enough there for most of them to work with.
Not enough for “adults,” I’d hasten to add. This movie isn’t for us.
For children ready to grow out of animated kids’ fare, the belches, farts, gigantic-tail wagging out of control of a giant dog in New York might be enough.
Cast: Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Tony Hale, Tovah Feldshuh, Horatio Sanz, Russell Peters, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Wong and John Cleese.
Credits: Directed by Walt Becker, scripted by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:36