Clifford The Big Red Dog

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Clifford The Big Red Dog
"While it's got some quirks it's relatively inoffensive, and if it feels like damning it with faint praise to say it's got nothing drastically wrong with it then fair enough."

"Magic is all around us," says John Cleese in voiceover. We will later discover that he, and, one suspects a number of stand-ins, are playing a Mr Bridwell. Named for the eponymous animal's creator, Norman Bridwell created Emily Elizabeth and Clifford The Big Red Dog back in 1963. The book where he goes to Hollywood was 1980, but it took a few more years for screen adaptations. Variously released already, in some cinemas at some points, this is a family animal picture in a traditional fashion. While it's got some quirks it's relatively inoffensive, and if it feels like damning it with faint praise to say it's got nothing drastically wrong with it then fair enough.

It is less off-putting than the quota of saliva, urine, snot and flatulence jokes that are as much a part of dog movies like Turner & Hooch and Beethoven as weirdly obsessed baddies. Here (among many comedians, comic actors, and voice actors) it's Tony Hale. He runs a firm who've somehow managed to spend just $400m on a project that includes a genetic research campus on, or at least proximate to, Manhattan. By way of comparison Theranos (as seen in both The Inventor and Bad Blood) managed to raise at least $724m and they didn't even have a really mean sheep.

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Technology plays an odd part. Emily's not well-liked at school, and there's a point where the cyberbullying is clear enough that even an institution named Thatcher Academy might see the societal harm. Between microchip McGuffins and a bespectacled science friend (Izaac Wang, who is one to watch out for) there's a lot of computer stuff that isn't emoting at empty hands or a tennis ball on a stick. There's even a scene of internet searching.

It's actual Google, but I'm not sure what product placement elements are involved in text like "your search is configured to return zero results". I use that alliterative allegation advisedly for a couple of reasons, the most striking of which is when a sketched hot dog cart in the end credits gets details added and they include four distinctive bottles, Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Dasani. The credits parallel the opening, if not rotoscoped then some near analogue, and then in closing what has the feel of concept art. Given that Clifford started as a sketch this feels almost fitting, though I am almost certainly over-thinking things.

There's a lesson about tolerance of those different than us, a bit about making friends, a salutary warning about the dangers of working at height, what appears to be a misuse of "class-action" as a threat, a tent that isn't bigger on the inside because it is, in fact, "smaller on the outside", and a big red dog. A big red dog that starts, importantly, as an almost identically proportioned very small red dog, which interacts about as convincingly with the environment at the micro- as at the macro- scale.

Most of the dangers of animating hair and animals and water are obviated, but the red they've used seems an attempt to have their cake and eat it. It's somehow even more artificial than Ziggy Stardust's henna, even if it is of a similar vintage. This is a place where pure animation still reigns supreme, if only because you can amortise disbelief across a canvas more readily than you can suspend it.

Walt Becker directs, this is his fifth picture with an animal in the title (Buying The Cow, Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip) and he's confident enough. I won't say any of them are good, but it is interesting how his career has intersected with actors who are household names, though mostly at the steeper parts of their career trajectories.

Emily is played by Darby Camp, loads of TV, a recurring role in The Christmas Chronicles movies, kids' dog film pedigree with a similar role in 2018's Benji. She does a great job here, as does Wang. When inexplicable parental job takes her mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory) away from their ("rent controlled") apartment, she is left under the supervision of her wastrel uncle, Casey, played by Jack Whitehall. They attempt to justify his American accent, but it's odd. Even more so when he pretends to have an English accent, which does not seem to be his own.

You might find yourself thinking "that's not a rectal thermometer" but with Kenan Thompson and Rosie Perez staffing the veterinarian clinic you don't really mind. Not even when there's scale-breaking exposition to deliver. That's less true in other places, and with other members of the cast.

I've a rule of thumb that the quality of a film is inversely proportionate to the number of screenwriting credits, and it's not sorely tested here. Jay Scherick (Baywatch, Norbit, The Smurfs (and 2)), David Ronn (co-wrote all those, and more), Blaze Hemingway (Playmobil: The Movie, Vampires vs. the Bronx, and the forthcoming Settlers of Catan movie), Justin Malen (Yes Day) and Ellen Rapaport (Desperadoes) contribute to the number of cooks. If there's a soupcon of originality in and amongst it stock situations and characters overwhelm it, but what makes me salty others might find sweet.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2021
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A girl who is struggling to fit in finds a new best friend, but after the pup grows up he attracts the attention of a genetics company, forcing the pair to go on the run.

Director: Walt Becker

Writer: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Blaise Hemingway

Starring: Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Izaac Wang, John Cleese, Sienna Guillory, Tony Hale, David Alan Grier, Horatio Sanz, Paul Rodriguez, Russell Peters, Keith Ewell, Bear Allen-Blaine, Tovah Feldshuh, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Ty Jones

Year: 2021

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, Canada, UK

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