This CGI dog is lovable once you get to know him.
Ever since my sister and brother-in-law got two girl dogs named Kona and Remi, I’ve grown a soft spot for dogs, and would be miserable if anything happened to them. Maybe a close connection with them can change a person’s perspectives, and maybe the love and sweetness inside them can warm you up. That’s basically what happened to me, and I love it.
Maybe that’s why I enjoyed “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which is the live-action film version of the beloved stories by Norman Birdwell, which is about the giant red dog named Clifford, who inspired love and kindness to every kid and adult.
Yes, we have to live in a time when our favorite cartoon characters have to be CGI creatures in “Garfield,” “The Smurfs,” and “Scooby Doo,” and so forth. And other CGI animals can shine or bomb, depending on how the filmmakers choose to present them, like how “Dolittle” failed on so many levels, and how “The One and Only Ivan” had its heart in the right place. But in a weird way, this Clifford is actually pretty cute with its dog eyes, tail-wagging, and companionship with his human friend Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp from “The Christmas Chronicles”).
As the film begins, set in New York City, Emily Elizabeth is taken care of by her irresponsible uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), while her lawyer mother (Sienna Guillory) is on a case in Chicago. They find themselves at an animal shelter owned by the mysterious Mr. Birdwell (John Cleese), who gives Emily a tiny red dog. He’ll grow. It all depends on how much she loves him, and when she wishes her new dog named Clifford was big, wish granted.
There’s a new friend-a rich Asian kid named Owen (Izaac Wong from “Raya and the Last Dragon”)-who helps them find Birdwell, so they can bring Clifford back to normal. And there’s also a villain-a genetic company CEO (Tony Hale)-who plans to own Clifford for experimentation.
“Clifford the Big Red Dog” was directed by Walt Becker, who has made bombs like “Van Wilder,” “Wild Hogs,” “Old Dogs,” and I didn’t even see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.” Aside from a generic fart joke and some predictable plot points, I think this is his best work yet. Maybe it’s because being an uncle to two dogs has made me a softie, or maybe it’s because the movie is sweet and lovable for kids and their parents, and it’s sometimes pretty funny.
Darby has a child acting ability, as demonstrated in “The Christmas Chronicles,” and in this one, she knows when to commit to the Emily Elizabeth role. And the same applies to Wong, who delivers two nice supporting roles this year. Whitehall is goofy fun as the uncle, who tries and fails to put a garbage bag on a “broken” meter so he can sleep in his van. Hale as some energy as the villain. And Cleese made me feel good inside. I know they’re not Oscar-worthy roles, but they still do better work than either Robert Downey, Jr. or Antonio Banderas or Michael Sheen in “Dolittle.”
The special effects for the dog are much better than Scooby Doo’s especially when the humans have to ride on props, and it doesn’t resort to violence and humiliation as the “Peter Rabbit” movies did. I guess I went soft on “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” the way Kona begs me to feed her at the dinner table, and you know what? I feel good about it.
In Theaters and Streaming on Paramount+ Tomorrow