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Saturday, November 13, 2021

Clifford the Big Red Dog


The most amazing sight in Clifford the Big Red Dog is not Clifford himself, who is brought to life by high-tech CG, and mixes surprisingly well with his human co-stars.  Rather, it's the fact that John Cleese, Monty Python member and one of the original bad boys of British comedy, has reached the point in his career where he can play Mr. Bridwell, the magical and grandfatherly man with a constant twinkle in his eye and a tender spirit.  Years of associating him with his material on Fawlty Towers did not prepare me for that, but he makes the transition to whimsical old man without missing a step.

The movie, based on the beloved children's book series by Norman Bridwell (whom Cleese's character is named after), is a sweet and effective movie that kids are bound to love, and adults will smile a lot at.  It makes the wise decision of not giving Clifford the ability to speak, and to act like a normal dog, despite the fact that he's as red as a fire truck, and about the size of one as well.  It's the kind of sweet and pleasant movie where we never really question why Clifford seemingly grows from a puppy no bigger than a little girl's house slippers, to his massive size overnight.  The movie is also wise enough not to explain this.  The only answer we get is the size of the dog is determined by how much you love him.  That's good enough for me.

The story, as expected, is a simple fable that's told in a simple fashion.  A lonely 12-year-old girl named Emily (Darby Camp) is stuck living with her slobbish Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) while her mother (Sienna Guillory) is away on a business trip.  The movie races through introducing us to the people in Emily's life, such as the mean girls at school who tease her, and the colorful inhabitants of her apartment building, who of course will all play a part in the madcap adventures to come.  One day, Emily visits an animal rescue tent, where she meets the previously mentioned Mr. Bridwell, who entices her with a strange red puppy that she instantly falls in love with.  She has to leave the dog behind to go to school, but the pup sneaks away in her backpack.  She names him Clifford, and while lying in bed that night, she makes a "magical wish" that the scrawny puppy could be big and strong.

The next morning, Clifford is now big enough to fill almost her entire room, something that she comes to accept quite quickly under the circumstances.  Emily and Uncle Casey make some vain efforts to hide Clifford's presence, but the dog naturally gets out in public, and becomes a viral sensation, which catches the eye of the evil Zack (Tony Hale), the head of a genetics lab who wants to experiment on Clifford.  Of course, a movie like this does not need a villain, and he exists only so there can be some chase scenes where little Emily rides on the back of the massive dog through New York City.  Once again, the movie plays it smart by not playing up the villain or the action too much, and it never strays from the heart of the story too often.  Yes, we do get the unavoidable sights of Clifford drinking from a toilet or lifting his leg on a tree, but those come with the kid's movie territory.

Clifford the Big Red Dog is largely not about the crude humor, nor does it try to be modern or edgy.  It's a sweet storybook of a film that believes that a friendship between a little girl and a massive puppy can bring people together and even create miracles.  Either you buy it, or you don't.  I was able to surprisingly easily.  A lot of this has to do with Clifford himself, and how the special effects artists have managed to bring him to life without making him terrifying or too real looking to be creepy.  The only time the effects don't work is when one of the human actors is riding on top of him, but this doesn't happen very often.  The rest of the time, he works, and because he works, so does the movie.  It's really that simple.  I think that director Walt Becker found the right angle here, and emphasizes the wonder of the story.


Cynics will likely love to hate this, but sometimes we need movies about magical old men who help lonely little girls find the friend they need with a magic dog.  When you think of how many ways this movie could have gone wrong, it's kind of surprising how many the filmmakers found to make it work.

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