20 April 2024

Film Review – Clifford The Big Red Dog (2021)

Who can resist a friendly puppy? Even if he’s bright red and gigantic, like the star of Clifford The Big Red Dog, it would take the hardest of hearts not to be charmed just a little. The original Clifford made his debut back in the mid-60s and appeared in around 80 children’s books, all by writer and cartoonist Norman Bridwell. To say nothing of audio versions, a TV series and an animated film. It was only a matter of time before his creation made it to a big enough screen. If only the filmmakers could have waited a little longer ….

Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) finds herself being looked after by her irresponsible uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) when her mum Maggie (Sienna Guillory) is out of town on business. They’re under strict instructions to stay out of trouble but, in the local park, they come across an animal carnival run by the mysterious Mr Bridwell (John Cleese) – a nod to the original author – who introduces Emily to the cute, and very red, Clifford who is still very much puppy-sized. Clifford manages to sneak home with the girl and, although she knows she’ll have to return him the next day, she wakes up to find that he’s grown into an enormous, exuberant and loveable red dog (well, actually, he’s still a puppy, but you know …..) A series of adventures follow, which include avoiding the grumpy super at the apartment block, getting into Emily’s school and, most importantly, staying out of the clutches of villainous businessman, Zack Tieran (Tony Hale).

Just three words sum up the film. Clifford is cute. Nobody would disagree and his own style of canine charm is exactly what you get for an hour and a half. Except he’s only the genuinely likeable thing on screen and, even then, he has his limitations. Admittedly, this writer isn’t the target audience for the film: with its PG certificate, it’s aimed at eight year olds and below, although the story and the way it’s told clearly has an even younger age group in mind. Adults, on the other hand, might find their tolerance levels stretched to their limits.

The sad thing about Clifford The Big Red Dog is that, no matter how much you set out wanting to like it, it never, ever lives up to your expectations. Take a closer look at the CGI mutt. Sure, he’s appealing, but somehow the actors never really look at him in the face and he’s guilty of the same special effects sin. Worse still, in the scenes when either Emily or Casey are shown riding him like a horse, there’s no attempt to depict a human on his back. The effect is more like a bag of spuds with flailing arms riding a big red bucking bronco. The bottom line is that it looks cheap, as if the entire budget was thrown at the CGI dog and anything left over was spread so thinly that it became invisible.

The rest of the film isn’t much better: Jack Whitehall’s accent – a combination of fake American and Brit – is downright bizarre. Emily Elizabeth’s best friend at school, the nerdy Owen (Isaac Wang), is supposed to provide some of the comedy but is saddled with one-liners that land like pancakes. Even John Cleese is unable to bring a touch of class to proceedings, while Tony Hale never shakes off the pantomime villain cliché. There’s so little that works in the film that watching it becomes an endurance test, rather than uplifting. Chances are its intended audience will be so captivated by Clifford himself that it won’t matter, but the rest of us will be thinking we’ve just watched a big red dud.

Fantasy, Comedy | Cert: PG | Entertainment One | Cinemas, 10 December 2021 | Dir. Walt Becker | Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Sienna Guillory, John Cleese, Tony Hale, Isaac Wang.

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