‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ emotionally invests viewers of all ages

Written By Zack Lawry, Co-News Editor

3.5 Globes

When you’re dealing with a dog as big as Clifford, it’s only appropriate that you see his movie on the big screen. Unfortunately, getting to a theatre can be a big hassle, and tickets and concessions can be a big expense, so I had to settle for seeing it on the small screen via a free trial of Paramount Plus.

First thing’s first — Clifford the Big Red Dog is a kids’ movie. If you’re going into this movie expecting a water-tight plot or complicated and nuanced writing, you’re expecting way too much. Kids’ movies aren’t made to shake the world of cinema, and adults are not their target audience.

Kids’ movies are made to entertain children and, more importantly, to teach them some kind of lesson. A plot being free of holes is not vital to a kids’ movie, especially if patching those holes means making the plot more complicated and difficult for children to understand. It’s much more important that the plot is simple and straightforward enough for children to be able to follow and take something away.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog” tells a story that is, in many ways, formulaic and not always very logical. Characters make decisions that can at times seem unreasonable and are obviously meant to serve the plot instead of developing them as realistic human beings. What it does do, however, is tell a compelling story of a young girl, Emily Elizabeth, struggling to find her place in the world.

Emily Elizabeth, played by Darby Camp, is the film’s adaptation of the same character from the original books and television series who was the owner of Clifford and the human protagonist of the series. In this film, Emily Elizabeth is a young girl in middle school who finds difficulty in fitting in with her peers in a prestigious private school who frequently bully her, often referring to her as “food stamps.”

In her moment of need, Emily Elizabeth is introduced to Clifford by a mysterious man known as Bridwell (John Cleese). Emiliy Elizabeth is able to relate to Clifford, being a small red dog (for now) who is unique and stands out from others like him, much like Emily Elizabeth herself.

The relationship between Emily Elizabeth and Clifford is, in my opinion, the movie’s strongest aspect. The story of two outcasts who find comfort in each other’s company isn’t particularly new or groundbreaking, but it’s a compelling story nonetheless. It’s also a story that young kids can learn a lot from, which is really what a movie like this is all about.

This movie handles Clifford himself very well, attributing his overnight growth from a tiny puppy into a big red dog to Emily Elizabeth’s wish for the pair to be “big and strong so no one could hurt them,” alongside a touch of magic.

One of the ways that film has evolved over the last 15-20 years has been the apparent need to explain everything in a realistic way. When combined with another recent trend of rebooting popular franchises and characters from the past, this can cause modern adaptations of old properties to create new, “realistic” backstories for classic characters with mixed results.

One of the things that “Clifford the Big Red Dog” does well is dismissing the realistic explanation trope, purposely being very vague in regards to the magic that makes Clifford grow and the man who is responsible for it (Bridwell). This movie easily could’ve gone for a detailed, scientific explanation of how Clifford got to be so big, but it doesn’t. Instead, it takes a much more magical route, which avoids needlessly complicating the story and appeals more to the target audience.

Although Clifford abides by plenty of modern film tropes and structuring, the lack of focus on explaining everything sets it apart from many other recent films. This also allows the film to be more effective with its message; instead of Clifford’s growth being the result of hard science, it is Emily’s wish that allows him to grow. This serves as a metaphor for how we can all grow as people by believing in ourselves and what we’re capable of, which makes a much more meaningful story than growing through radioactive mutations or genetic abnormalities.

Additionally, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” also features Jack Whitehall as Casey, Emily Elizabeth’s uncle who has to watch over her while her mother (Sienna Guillory) is on a business trip. Casey begins the film as somewhat of a mess, missing a job interview after oversleeping in the van he lives out of.

Casey’s story focuses on his attempts to prove himself to his family as a responsible and mature adult, while also trying to win over Emily Elizabeth who, being a child, often wants to do things that aren’t very responsible (such as raising a giant dog in a small New York apartment). Casey’s story appeals more to the adult audience, giving them a character they can relate to themselves. The balance between responsibility and fun/desire can be a difficult one to manage, making Casey’s struggle relatable to most adults.

The biggest issues I have with this movie are the formulaic plot that unfolds almost exactly as you’d expect it to, and inconsistent CGI that occasionally looks out of place. CGI isn’t really something that usually bothers me, but when it’s used to portray the titular character everyone is watching the movie to see, issues with lighting and rendering stand out more.

Personally, I was excited to see “Clifford the Big Red Dog” because I’m a fan of Kaiju (giant monsters) like Godzilla and Mothra, and Clifford technically qualifies as a Kaiju himself. I watched this movie to see a big red dog go on a rampage through New York City (and I was not let down on that front), but I was pleasantly surprised by a film that was genuinely entertaining with a handful of strong jokes and a story that is easy to connect with. It also helped that the film featured an adorable (albeit CGI) dog who made it much easier to get emotionally invested and even got my roommate Zac Wittman (Of ‘New Tracs with Zac’ fame) to cry twice.