Rating: B (Good)
Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy eOne Films
Norman Bridwell’s book series about a giant dog with red fur has enchanted readers since the 1960s and even inspired a popular animated series on PBS. It’s surprising it’s taken this long for a live-action film adaptation to be produced, but director Walt Becker has done a nice job with this pleasant family film. Clifford the Big Red Dog primarily seeks to be a heart-warming story about a girl and her dog and it succeeds well in that regard. It’s the sort of picture that gives the viewer a comforting feeling and accomplishes this through likeable characters and winning humour.
Like any “child and their dog” movie, the connection between the pooch and their owner needs to be believable. Even though Darby Camp, playing the role of Emily Elizabeth, is mostly required to act against a giant dog who isn’t there, the character’s love for Clifford comes through in every scene they share. There’s a nice bond formed between the two and the filmmakers also create the right amount of conflict to keep the story interesting. She’s a sympathetic lead that’s easy for the audience to get behind. The visual effects team also manages to make Clifford look adorable as he stomps through Emily’s small apartment or the local park.
Most of the film’s humour comes courtesy of Jack Whitehall as Emily’s uncle Casey. While portrayed as a goofball, Whitehall also shows the character’s softer side at times as he deals with his niece’s love for this humongous dog. His American accent is a tad dodgy, but one gets used to it after a while. The filmmakers even include a humorous in-joke when Casey attempts a stereotypical British accent. The other comedic scenes don’t result in eye rolls and even one of the few instances of toilet humour in the movie is funny. Tony Hale plays the main villain, the head of an animal testing laboratory, and he does make the character easy to root against.
John Cleese turns up as a mysterious animal rescuer and brings the right level of whimsy to the role. In a sweet tribute to the original author, he’s even named Mr. Bridwell. Becker keeps the story engaging throughout, but it’s primarily the film’s heart that adds to the movie’s likeability. There’s a clear respect for these characters and that leads to a rooting interest in hoping things turn out well for Emily and Clifford. Meanwhile, the sentimental moments don’t get too cloying or syrupy. Becker also fleshes out the community well and even minor characters manage to make a memorable impression.
Clifford the Big Red Dog has the feel of something one might have seen on VHS in the ‘90s and hold soft nostalgic memories of. It has that warmness to it. However, the film also holds up to adult scrutiny as a pleasant and genuine family adventure that doesn’t feel like it’s talking down to the target audience. Walt Becker, along with the five screenwriters credited on the screenplay, has fashioned a charming tale that just seeks to leave the viewer with a good mood as they walk out of the theatre. You often times need these kinds of sunny films to take a break from the harsh reality of the real world. Clifford the Big Red Dog does exactly what it sets out to do and serves as a respectful take on this beloved children’s literary icon.
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