A Heavily Clichéd Family Film

Hollywood is officially in Oscar season, which is that time of year where studios release their best movies to impress the Academy and win big during the Oscars. And here we have the most obvious contender to sweep every award: Clifford the Big Red Dog, a fantasy comedy about Emily Elizabeth Howard (Darby Camp), a middle schooler who discovers a small red puppy she names Clifford. Her love for Clifford makes him grow incredibly large, and as expected with children’s movies, hijinks ensue.

In case you somehow missed my sarcasm, this movie will not be winning any Oscars. I can’t imagine this movie winning anything because it is not the cinematic masterpiece the premise would lead you to believe. This is one of the most heavily clichéd family films of the decade, and it doesn’t have anything new to say, nor does it have a fresh take on any of the tropes we’ve seen before. It just follows a formula to a tee.

Let me ask you a question: Whenever it’s time to adapt children’s entertainment into a live-action movie, where is that live-action movie going to take place? It’s never Uzbekistan. It’s never North Korea. It’s always New York City. The Smurfs? The Big Apple. Tom & Jerry? The City That Never Sleeps. And now, it’s time for Clifford the Big Red Dog to set itself in Manhattan (the majority-white area of Harlem, to be specific) and take the world by storm.

Our main character, Emily Elizabeth, is an outcast in her school. She gets bullied by the popular kids, doesn’t have any friends, and is different from her classmates. Eventually, she makes friends with Owen (Izaac Wang), the nerdy boy next door who may or may not like Emily Elizabeth. The guy looking after Emily Elizabeth is her Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), a bumbling, immature authority figure trying to have fun and be cool while also being responsible. As you can see, it’s as if the writers were limited to writing stock characters for this movie.

As we’ve seen in Norman Bridwell’s books and the TV show that was a fundamental part of my childhood, Emily Elizabeth’s love makes Clifford grow into a giant. And this is where I have to praise the film for perfectly casting its 15-foot tall red canine. Of course, it could not have been easy to locate and train that prodigious pooch, but director Walt Becker’s animal experience on Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip paid off here. Okay, it’s CGI. And anyone above the age of seven can tell. When Clifford first shows up, it’s genuinely hilarious. And it just gets better and better.

Once Clifford grows, we have all of our standard children’s movie gags and story beats. The main characters have to hide Clifford while someone is looking through the house, and it just feels like every scene you already saw in movies like E.T., Big Hero 6, The Iron Giant, and every movie about a kid who befriends something peculiar. But we can’t just have Clifford running around having fun! We need an evil corporation that wants to take Clifford for themselves because every single children’s movie needs an evil corporation to complicate things for the child heroes.

The movie takes the basic premise of Clifford and goes down the most standard, conventional route possible. There are some absurdly hilarious plot points and contrived emotional moments that don’t land at all. We also had the most obvious Zillow product placement since Sonic the Hedgehog, another movie about a person befriending a strange creature as an evil corporation pursues them. Perhaps the biggest genuine issue of the film is that it doesn’t take enough time to invest the audience in the friendship between Emily Elizabeth and Clifford. Instead, it’s something we’re just supposed to accept.

My viewing experience was only enhanced by the child behind me, who is the film’s target demographic, yelling, “I don’t want to watch this! This is not a good movie!” halfway through. But despite all of the genuine problems I had with the film, I found myself giggling a lot over the experience. Sure, the CGI may be inconsistent, and the writing may be inadequate, but everyone gives likable performances that are fun to watch, including the well-respected actors and comedians who pop up for a scene or two. Is this a good movie, though? I’m going to have to agree with the kid in the row behind me.

SCORE: 4/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 4 equates to “Poor.” The negatives overweigh the positive aspects making it a struggle to get through.

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