Clifford the Big Red Dog: Doggone it – this predictable canine caper disappoints
Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG, 96 minutes) Directed by Walt Becker ** ½
He is the nearly 60-year-old dog who has delighted audiences for generations.
A cochineal dog whose 80 pounds have passed through all of the major human celebrations and commemorations from Halloween to Hanukkah and is such a beloved talisman that he’s the official mascot of Publisher Scholastic.
Now, after being the subject of three animated series and a feature film spin-off, Clifford finally has his own ‘live-action’ film.
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Perhaps naturally enough, it’s an origin story of how he first met preteen Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp), now 12, instead of eight, as she was. was in the books.
Recently arrived in New York, Emily Elizabeth is a girl who really needs a friend. Her days at the elite Thatcher Academy range from “abysmal” to “excruciating,” as she is chosen to live in a rent-controlled Harlem apartment and distinguished only to be there on a scholarship.
Already weary and suspicious of her mother Maggie’s (Sienna Guillory) insistence that she must learn to defend herself, Emily Elizabeth is not thrilled to learn that Maggie is going on a business trip for several days. Worse yet, since not all of the nannies she’s tried are available, Emily Elizabeth is placed in the care of her foolish uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall, sporting a very odd American accent).
A man-child who lives in a van and firmly believes that green M&M are vegetables, he also sadly knew Emily Elizabeth once on the subway – twice.
Realizing that he still has a little debt to her, she decides to take advantage of the situation and persuade him to go visit a tent at an animal shelter on the way to school one morning. It is there that they meet Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), who in turn introduces them to a little red puppy.
But although Emily Elizabeth is instantly smitten and – even names him Clifford – allowing her to take possession of the dog is a bridge too far for Casey. However, after yet another depressing day in class and in the cafeteria, Emily Elizabeth is delighted to discover a stowaway in her briefcase. However, any hope she has of hiding it quickly wears off after Clifford spots slippers and a slice or two of turkey unattended.
“I’m not going to fall for your girlish powers,” Casey said, trying to lay the law, while refraining from letting Clifford stay the night.
Cuddling her load when she gets the chance, Emily Elizabeth makes the fateful vow that he will be “great” and that “the world cannot hurt us.” A plea which, when she wakes up the next morning, is carried out on a scale that she could never have dreamed of.
What follows is a predictable mix of missteps, hijackings, scatological humor, and infamous scientists, as a genetic engineering company desperately wants to get its paw on the Scarlet Hound.
The writing quintet and director Walt Becker (Wild pigs, Old dogs) do their best to keep the action and laughs intense and fast, but while it will likely captivate those under eight, for most adults it will be more of a test of endurance. A fight involving bodega bakery items is inspired, however, there are far too many second-rate chase sequences and obvious gags.
Likewise, a running joke about one character with an artificial hand and another’s obsession with condensed – rather watery – milk raises concerns about the taste levels of the creators. Then there is the acting. Veep’s Tony Hale provides a passable villain and Big little lies’ Camp is a pretty sympathetic lead, Brits Whitehall and Cleese, however, feel both out of place and out of time.
Something that can also be said for the tone of the film too. Although Becker clearly learned valuable lessons about Alvin and the Chipmunks following The road chip on the mix of CGI and live-action (Clifford doesn’t have a lot of other animals to interact with here), it actually feels more like a 90s kids and animal movie at the Slappy and the stinks, Pinball and Save Willy (there’s even a jump to compete with the movie climax).
The only bright spot is that unlike the TV series, at least they’ve decided here that Clifford shouldn’t be speaking.
After preview screenings in a selection of cinemas this weekend, Clifford the big red dog opens nationwide on December 30.