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Review: 'Clifford The Big Red Dog' (2021) Dir. Walt Becker

Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong, Izaac Wang, Kenan Thompson, Tovah Feldshuh and John Cleese


Based on the beloved children's books of the same name by author Norman Bridwell, this big-screen live-action debut heaps on the visual effects and goes to tug on your heartstrings...

Young Emily Howard (Camp) lives with her mother Maggie (Guillory) in New York, but is being bullied at school and has few friends bar Owen (Wang). When Maggie has to go to Chicago for work, Emily's uncle Casey (Whitehall) arrives to look after her.

In a chance meeting with Mr. Bridwell (Cleese) and his pop-up animal shelter, Emily finds a small red puppy, Clifford, in her satchel at home. Wishing he was big and strong on night, she wakes to find Clifford has become just that; as big and strong as an elephant.

Trying to protect and get used to Clifford as a huge puppy in New York is one thing, but Emily, Casey and Owen must not only seek out Mr Birdwell for help, but protect Clifford from an evil genetic scientist, Zac Tieran (Hale), who wants the puppy for his own experiments...

Adapting a children's classic from the 1960s books, and then later on the TV cartoon series, we have our first live action effort. As with most live-action adaptations, this avoids a few of the modern pitfalls by not having Clifford voiced by James Cordon, and he actually retains everything that makes him an actual dog. If you're familiar with the live-action outings of Tom & Jerry and Smurfs, you will know what to expect with this outing of the bid, red dog.

Young Darby Camp, racking up her TV and film credits, most notably The Christmas Chronicles franchise, is covered with enough sweet and sugary smiles and giggles as Emily to be a child-star you can easily warm to. She's the crux of the story here, being the new girl in town who doesn't have any friends after moving to a new city (but knows 90% of the grown-ups in the area). She suffers the usual pitfalls of film childhood such as bullying, wide-eyed wonder, lack of attention from the parent etc. Emily is as isolated as Clifford, and this forms their bond, and Camp does a good job acting alongside a completely CGI creation, even if her character is as template as they come.

One of the biggest issues in this that drags the film down to be something that adults (and some children) may just find stupid is the inclusion of British comic Jack Whitehall as the American Uncle Casey. Giving us an explanation as to why he speaks with a basic American accent (he moved here when he was two, apparently), there is little to fathom why he needs to be American at all, but probably an attempt to break the US market following his stint in Jungle Cruise. With an English sister, Whitehall's buffoon of an Uncle pratfalls and acts like more of a child than his niece, but maybe the studios think it's funny for camp grownups to eat like animals, fall over and scream like little girls.

Whitehall makes it difficult to watch as this style of silly comedy makes him even more irritable, and it's baffling to think we should find adults acting like petulant "modern" youths amusing anymore. Children deserve something better than this, surely.

We also have John Cleese as a man of mystical mystery (named after the original Clifford author), Sienna Guillory as Emily's mother and Izaac Wang as young Owen who helps Emily on her adventures to save and protect Clifford. Clifford himself as a fully CGI rendered creation isn't the worst that has come to the big-screen, and this is a fully fantastical adventure.

But of course there is no children's film complete without some inept baddies to go up against. In this case it's a host of buffoon-like scientists trying to solve the worlds hunger problem using genetics, led by black polo jumper wearing Tony Hale who wants Clifford for his experiments and is straight away our boo-hiss baddie. Be prepared for silly fights, chases and a host of family-friendly nonsense even in the most "dramatic" of moments.

The target audience of minors will probably find many of the silly sequences amusing and exaggerated physical slips, trips and falls, lots of silly and harmless moments where Clifford gets into all sorts of CGI enhanced chaos. There is lots of slobber, dog wee, bottom sniffing and and farting to amuse the kiddies, but they will also be moved no doubt by Clifford's emotional ups and downs; it's hard to not relate to pets and animals when you see even CGI rendered creations moan, groan, suffer and whimper. This is something we've seen before in all sorts of animal/children films, and it more or less does the intended job.

With three writers taking on a story devised by two others, the script is peppered with silly jokes and silly set pieces that have no substance. The dialogue is full of unnecessary exposition and silly humour for Whitehall to flex his chops around. This doesn't also help with the score by John Debney, feeling more like an extended Tom & Jerry episode, lacking any real innovate riffs or tracks; it's zany when it wants to be, slow and tender when it needs to be and just one big score of mischievous brass, percussion, woodwind and synths. It's just a very familiar, very safe and very lazy adaptation.

Running at only 85mins, it's easy to see and feel that the source material is stretched as far as it can be. Split into three acts, we have the first that introduces us to all the key players, the second where Clifford becomes a celebrity and everyone loves him, and the third where everything comes together to save the day and restore the warmth and joy again. There is heart there, underneath all the nonsense and lack of story, and we are treated to morals about doing the right thing, being kind to others, being proud of being unique and all the other usual points that will make children, hopefully, grow to be something other CGI puppies can be proud of.

For most, it will be a lazy slog, but for the target youth audience, this will deliver the right amount of silly slapstick and heart, especially from Clifford's big, red puppy and Darby Camp's wide-eyed Emily.

'Clifford The Big Red Dog' is a co-production between Entertainment One, New Republic Pictures, Scholastic Entertainment and The Kerner Entertainment Company

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