Clifford the Big Red Dog arrives just in time to be your wholesome-watch for Thanksgiving

By: Steve Pulaski

The thought of a live-action adaptation of Clifford the Big Red Dog was enough to make anyone, maybe even children, shudder. The filmmakers had one of two logical options before them: make the project animated and have Clifford and other animals speak or make it live-action and let them remain silent. Thankfully, they didn’t try to have their cake and eat it too. Sure, it negates the scrappy adventures Clifford has with fellow pups Cleo and T-Bone, but the latter character is cutely referenced in a passing moment. I’ll take that over what could’ve been an unmitigated disaster.

Based on the popular Norman Bridwell books — which in turn spawned the whimsical PBS program that ran in the early aughts — Clifford the Big Red Dog is the happily earnest bit of family entertainment that we seldom see done correctly. It doesn’t overwhelm the eyes with candy-coated chaos nor does it assault the auditory senses with copious noise garbage. It’s a breezy watch at merely 96 minutes, and, blessed so, doesn’t feel overly calculated like some of its counterparts (looking at you, Spirit Untamed).

The 12-year-old whip-smart Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp) is the pariah of her new prestigious private school. She’s called “food stamp” by her peers, and has few sources of conversation outside of her single mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory). When mom leaves for some paralegal endeavor, she reluctantly asks her lackadaisical brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to watch over Emily. Nevermind the fact that Casey lives out of his van and doesn’t appear to have two nickels to rub together, but we’ve all been in a desperate bind.

On the way to school one morning, Emily and Uncle Casey happen upon an animal carnival run by a mysterious man named Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese, and a reference to the author). Sidebar: in the book series and the PBS show, the Howard family lived on the fictitious “Birdwell Island.” The film pronounces the name phonetically and is set in New York City. Odd. Moreover, it’s inside Mr. Bridwell’s gigantic carnival tent where she meets Clifford, a smaller-than-average puppy that would already make him the runt of any litter, but even moreso given his blood-red fur. Casey turns down Emily’s desire to bring him home, yet that doesn’t stop Clifford from sneaking into her backpack.

Casey concedes she can keep him for a night. Before bed, Emily wishes that the two of them could rise above their problems. She wakes up to find that Clifford is now the size of a small house, the more familiar version of the dog who has come to be a staple on syndicated children’s networks and school-libraries. Emily and Casey try to hide the dog from their grumpy super (David Alan Grier), although they soon learn they have bigger problems on their hands. A vicious CEO Zack Tieran (Tony Hale), the owner of a biotechnology company named Lifegro, tries to convince the NYPD that the dog escaped from his lab. Before-long, the entire city is after the big red good boy.

Writers Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway (working off a story by Justin Malen and Ellen Rapoport) unfortunately opted for another tech CEO as the film’s primary villain, a move liable to produce a groan from those weary of what has become the biggest cliché in modern kids movies. That’s what happens when you have Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezos’s running around, I suppose. A credit to the writers for preserving the integrity of Clifford as an undeniably harmless dog. No better scene illustrates this than when Emily is about to get creamed by one of her school’s mean girls. Clifford shows up in the knick of time, and rather than taunting the bully, he gives her a hearty lick in front of the class. It’s the definition of wholesome.

Bogging Clifford the Big Red Dog down is its propensity to incorporate juvenile humor into a story that counteracts the aura of “proper English” brought on by its actors (both Cleese and Guillory are English, and Camp adopts the accent as well). There are a few too many fart gags that don’t mesh with the earnest tone. Not every family film can be as graceful as something like Paddington, sadly. Them’s the breaks. Furthermore, Whitehall adheres to the screenplay’s direction of making Casey out to be a bumbling fool, but the character is drawn a bit too much like a cartoon, to the point where he tilts the sincerity of certain moments — namely the scene when Emily is begging to keep Clifford as a pet.

These distractions are sometimes present enough to make you miss the familiar but thoughtful message Clifford the Big Red Dog has to offer. Emily’s desire for her and Clifford to be “big and strong” in the face of a cold world couldn’t be more resounding given the current social climate. Her love for Clifford is also a fine lesson for those around-or-younger-in-age than Emily, who might want their first dog as a companion in a more isolated world than any of us could’ve ever imagined.

Released just two weeks before Thanksgiving, and accessible with a free trial of Paramount+, there might not have been a better time for this flick to see a release after lingering in development hell for nine years.

NOTE: Apropos of nothing, but I find it humorous that director Walt Becker has helmed production on all three of these films: Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and now, Clifford the Big Red Dog.

NOTE: Clifford the Big Red Dog is now in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.

Grade: B-

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