“Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a big boy, but not a particularly good one, in a live-action adventure that reminds us, again, that for all the wonders that computer animation can conjure on screen, nothing quite beats a real live dog.
Adapted from Norman Bridwell’s Scholastic books turned PBS series, the movie falls into a similar trap to the recent remake of “The Call of the Wild,” which experienced similar issues in going the CGI route with Harrison Ford’s furry co-star.
The bigger issue, though, hinges on the need to stretch the slim source material into an actual movie, which requires creating a villain as well as a semi-mystical explanation for how 12-year-old Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) comes into the possession of an elephant-sized bright red puppy, this time in the slightly cramped confines of New York City.
As it turns out, Emily — who is struggling to adjust to the snooty private school she attends — gets left alone with her slacker uncle Casey (“The Jungle Cruise’s” Jack Whitehall), who just wants to get through his weekend of babysitting duty without unduly screwing things up.
Unfortunately, they encounter an animal rescuer with a twinkle in his eye appropriately named Bridwell, played by John Cleese, who at least doesn’t try to sell them a dead parrot. (If you’re way too young to get that Monty Python reference, you’re probably much closer to the target audience.)
Emily immediately wants the dog, even though Casey says no. When asked how big he’ll get, Bridwell responds coyly, “That depends … on how much you love him.”
Quite a lot, apparently, since Clifford shoots up overnight, not only creating plenty of logistical headaches for the pair, but also catching the eye of an amoral CEO (Tony Hale) who is failing in his efforts to grow super-sized animals. Clifford looks the answer to his prayers, but that of course means finding some way to separate the girl from the mutt.
There’s a bit of an “It takes a village” aspect to the story involving Emily’s colorful neighborhood, but that’s primarily a way to flesh out the narrative — a task that falls to director Walt Becker, whose most pertinent credit for these purposes is “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” and a handful of writers.
Ultimately, the question many will have is how well the movie will play with younger kids, and answer is probably not bad, thanks to what the Motion Picture Assn. of America calls “impolite humor,” shorthand for magnified versions of familiar canine activities, including butt smelling and flatulence.
Even with those few low-brow laughs, “Clifford” feels like modest compensation for the price of a ticket, or even the time spent watching its simultaneous premiere on streaming service Paramount+.
“Magic is all around us if you just know where to look,” Bridwell says in introducing the story.
As big as he is, you still have to look pretty hard and uncritically to find much magic in “Clifford.”
“Clifford the Big Red Dog” premieres Nov. 10 in US theaters and on Paramount+. It’s rated PG.
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