Clifford: The Big Red Dog Review – So Fetch

It didn’t get the red carpet premiere that it deserved, but I’m pleasantly surprised to say that Clifford is hardly the biggest dog that TIFF’s ever programmed among the Galas. After delaying its release due to concerns about the Delta Variant, Clifford: The Big Red Dog finally hits theatres when the sun seems to be lifting. It’s just the kind of fun escape that kids probably need. Parents and intrigued cinephiles, moreover, might want to throw the dog (and festival) a bone. Clifford is light escapism with a feel-good message about embracing anyone who stands out from the crowd. Someone finally found a way to make “fetch” happen.

Adults, especially parents, should enjoy seeing the beloved Scholastic book series brought to the screen for their kids to enjoy. Based on the children’s book character created by Norman Bridwell, Clifford is a dog as big as an IMAX screen. He’s as red as a blushing kid with a crush, as vibrant as a cherry-flavoured snow cone. The film gives the beloved pup an origin story as young New Yorker Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp, Big Little Lies) adopts him. Emily, however, is a total goody-goodie, but the kids at her snooty private school ridicule her. They call her “Food Stamps” to her face and make each day a brutal, lonely hell.

But when Emily’s mom (Sienna Guillory, High Rise) leaves for a work trip, her scruffy uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall, Jungle Cruise) saves her tail. Casey, see, is not the parenting type. He’s a struggling artist and a bit of a mimbo. He inevitably thinks it’s fine to detour through the tent housing rescue animals that just happens to be pitched on Emily’s campus. What could go wrong with such a convenient plot point?

 

Big Dog in the Big Apple

In defense of Emily’s pretty-but-dumb uncle, though, she declines the high-pressure sales tactics of Bridwell the animal rescuer (John Cleese). Clifford’s just a baby—a pigeon-sized pipsqueak—when Emily cuddles him in the tent. A magic act later, however, and Clifford is in Emily’s Harlem apartment. And he’s big enough to take down King Kong.

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Chaos inevitably ensues and hilariously so. Clifford causes a ruckus in the apartment, breaking heirlooms and vases with each wag of his tail. (He wags it a lot.) A jaunt through Central Park sends some dork in a human-sized hamster ball careening through the grass. An inevitable potty break unleashes a geyser of puppy pee across the old trees. These sights naturally capture the attention of Instagrammers and Tweeters. Clifford soon becomes a viral sensation.

 

Doggone Fun

Things get a bit silly, however, when the news interests Zack Tieran (Tony Hale), president and CEO of LyfeGrow. Tieran has some incomprehensibly villainous plan to control global food supplies by genetically engineering animals. (Both for size and for angry temperament with the latter engineering something out of The Witch.) He therefore wonders if Clifford’s DNA has the magic ingredient. Tiernan and his crew of obedient lapdogs try to find the dog before Emily and company can locate Bridwell and reverse Clifford’s growth spurt.

Clifford: The Big Red Dog follows a reliable formula for entertaining adventures that lets comedy follow as the cast balloons to Clifford’s size. Joining Emily is Owen (Izaac Wang), a shy nerd from her class who’s obviously crushing on her. There’s also her condensed milk guzzling neighbour, some cheery neighbourhood lawyers, and an entire block of good fellas ready to defend Clifford from LyfeGrow’s evil designs.

 

Clifford Walks the Walk

As Emily and Owen race to save Clifford, their adventure inspires them not to see his gargantuan size as drawback. It’s a strength. Clifford: The Big Red Dog unabashedly teaches young audiences a message of inclusion and empathy. The group hug the film inspires is well-earned, though, since it walks the walk just as well as it talks the talk. A notably diverse and balanced cast ensures that kids from all corners of the audience can see themselves here.

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Directed by Walt Becker (Van Wilder), the film uses casting to its advantage. Clifford peppers the ensemble with old dogs and new tricks. For every spirited newcomer, there’s a veteran in a cameo. Besides John Cleese’s scene-stealing charm, Keenan Thompson is lots of fun as Clifford’s reluctant veterinarian, while Rosie Perez is his spunky receptionist. Whitehall is a fetching lead, and clearly having a lot of fun with the ride. However, young stars Camp and especially Wang should prove fun and scrappy heroes for viewers their age. Clifford’s the real star, however. Even if his size is somewhat inconsistent with the scale of his surroundings scene by scene (but hardly Cats-level inconsistent), he is too scrappy and adorable to resist.

Clifford: The Big Red Dog is doggone fun. Its heart is big and its bark is mighty. Kids will love it, and so too should parents who get to revisit a childhood favourite.

 

Clifford: The Big Red Dog opens in theatres Nov. 10.

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