Finally, the film event of the year is here. Hotly anticipated for its adaptation of a beloved character on the page, iconic in their image and through the powerful associations of community, responsibility and heroism they inspire. Many had worried if perhaps this was too big a film to pull off – the special effects were simply too insurmountable to make it work. Not to mention the unexpected cameos and surprises of a few familiar faces along the way – wait, do you think I’m talking about Spider-Man: No Way Home? No, I’m talking about Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Adapted from the beloved children’s books, or television series if you’re a little younger, director Walt Becker runs us through the origins of Clifford and Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp) – how they ended up together, and how Clifford got big. As John Cleese’s mythical David Attenborough-esque figure Mr. Bridwell – a nod to Clifford’s original creator Norman Bridwell – explains, Clifford is a story of two lost souls finding one another. This is told to us through the most 1990s-style introductory narration as we fly across New York City in a series of shots. Clifford’s entire structure feels like a 90s children’s film, from the traditional set-up of Emily Elizabeth’s single-mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory) struggling to balance work and life to the eclectic close-knit Harlem community Emily Elizabeth lives in, clichés abound. This works both for and against Clifford, as there is a fun sentimentality to returning this now long-forgotten formula, but equally so, there are reasons why it isn’t used anymore.
The Jack Whitehall-ification of family films has continued to spread, as he emerges as Emily Elizabeth’s wacky-but-loving Uncle Casey. He is quite honestly the single most distracting element in the entire film, threatening to throw everything off-balance – because of his American accent. Emily Elizabeth’s mother is British, but Whitehall for whatever reason sounds like he just decided to give an accent a go and no one wanted to upset him by telling him he sounds like a 14-year-old starring in his school musical production of Annie. It truly is one of the worst attempts at accent work you’ll hear all year, surpassing that of Lady Gaga; at least in failing to be Italian, she slides into Russian. Jack Whitehall has no such luxury. They even go so far as to have Casey put on a mock British accent, intentionally hamming it up even though Whitehall’s natural voice is British.
Because Clifford is only 90 minutes long, screenwriters Jay Scherick, David Ronn & Blaise Hemingway have to work fast. How did Clifford grow so big? The magic love of Emily Elizabeth of course. The fast-paced screenwriting often found in this type of family film also foregoes a lot of the darker, more absurd moments of Clifford. There are multiple instances where people should clearly die or be horrifically injured as the result of Clifford’s city-wide antics – it could easily be reframed as a modern monster flick. In an attempt to keep Clifford from Emily Elizabeth’s nasty superintendent, Jack Whitehall is propelled across a room and there are visible sound effects of his ribs cracking from the violent collision. In another instance, Clifford pops a zorb ball, unknowingly suffocating the man inside until he is quickly freed. He’s truly a terrifying creature whose shadow casts the threat of death – we must hail Clifford, lest we be killed under his vengeful paw.
There are some unexpected SNL cameos – Kenan Thompson and Alex Moffat both play little bit pieces – but the biggest surprise was Tony Hale as Lyfegro CEO Zac Tieran. He continues the questionable trend of non-villainous villains; Tieran’s whole goal with his company is to grow larger food and animals to stop world hunger. His entire goal is to help the world, especially the less fortunate. When he hears of Clifford’s downtown antics, he quickly turns into a carnivalesque bad guy, only missing the twirling moustache. You never believe that Tieran has bad intentions – he makes no mention of killing, selling or hurting Clifford; he just wants to analyse his DNA to develop a sustainable solution for world hunger. How is that villainous?
Clifford the Big Red Dog is frankly one of the more absurd films of the year, yet unknowingly so. It has the manic energy of a 6-year-old who just drank an espresso, bouncing off the walls at an unstoppable speed. It’s got such violently silly energy that it actually manages to have an unsettling horror to Clifford when you stop to consider the chaos he’s creating. All of this creates a hilariously entertaining watch – while it isn’t a good film, it’s certainly a great film for kids.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is available to watch in UK cinemas now.