By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter
Clifford the Big Red Dog is a live-action feature that goes for the Hollywood formula of a child against the world of adults, but for dogs, this approach doesn’t do enough. As with one of the TV series adaptations, Asian Americans are peripheral characters.
I didn’t grow up on the Norman Bridwell series. Fans of the books might also be disappointed. According to Wikipedia, Clifford begins as a two-year-old dog who belongs to Emily Elizabeth, an eight-year-old girl and in the two animated TV series (2019 and 2000-2003), Emily Elizabeth had a mother (Carolyn) and a father (Mark).
In the 2000-2003 TV series, the late Haunani Minn (1947-2014) voiced the librarian and the vet. In the 2019 series, Indian American actor Sugith Varughese voiced the mail carrier and one of the owners of a dog that was friends with Clifford. In 2003-2006, in Clifford’s Puppy Days, Lauren Tom voiced Shun, a young Japanese American boy, and Dionne Quan voiced a blind girl named Jenny.
The live-action film Clifford the Big Red Dog, begins with whimsical 2D animation and a voiceover by John Cleese who describes Manhattan as “an island full of wonder.”
Part of that wonder is a yellow lab making a den in an abandoned warehouse. The female dog and most of her pups were taken away by animal control. The pup destined to be Clifford is hidden by blankets. Left alone, he makes his way out of the warehouse, down some stairs, and to a park where he meets the narrator, Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese).
The 12-year-old Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) is on scholarship at a private school where she has no friends and is targeted by some other girls. Forced to leave on a business trip, her single mom Maggie (Sienna Guillory) is leaving Emily in the care of her irresponsible, impulsive brother, Casey (Jack Whitehall), who is currently living in the back of a commercial vehicle.
On the way to school, Mr. Bridwell has a popup shop and in it, Emily Elizabeth finds the small red puppy. Although Casey tells her she can’t have the dog, the pup ends up in Emily Elizabeth’s backpack and back at the apartment. Being much too late to return the pup, Casey allows the pup to stay, but overnight, the pup grows into the titular bigness. Casey and Emily Elizabeth attempt to hide the pup from the landlord, Packard (David Alan Grier), hoping to take the pup back to Mr. Bridwell.
The pup follows Emily Elizabeth to school and helps her make friends with the geeky, computer savvy Owen (Izaac Wang), and puts the snooty Florence (Mia Ronn) in her place. The pup becomes internet-famous when his outing in the park and at the school is videotaped on numerous cellphones.
The shenanigans catch the attention of a greedy biotech CEO, Tieran (Tony Hale). His company has been attempting to develop a way of ending world hunger, but so far they have nothing concrete to show their investors. Tieran sees the red pup as an investment gold mine–showing that he can produce oversized animals and believing that technology can eventually be used to enlarge domestic farm animals for food.
When Emily Elizabeth fails to find Bridwell, Owen’s father, Mr. Yu (Russell Wong), provides a possible plan: Exporting the dog to Asia where Mr. Yu has a large amount of land.
As you can imagine, Emily Elizabeth can’t be parted from Clifford so there will be a solution and somehow Tieran will be defeated.
What you won’t see is Emily Elizabeth bonding and training Clifford and going through the usual trials of puppy training. An attack by an exuberant large dog on a person in a large plastic bubble ball is played for laughs.
There’s nothing really funny about a large, uncontrolled dog loose in the park that is destroying property. That is why so many large dogs end up in an animal shelter. One wonders where is animal control and why isn’t it enforcing leash laws, but after the initial segment, animal control officers seem to disappear.
While I love the idea of Clifford as a fantastically big dog who is an odd shade of red, I do feel that bringing Clifford into live-action comes with some responsibility. And if you’re going to introduce a pee sight gag, you’ve also made people wonder about poop and then house training. We never wonder about how Pete the Dragon defecated because it is never introduced into the reality of the film.
I love the diversity of the casting and how NYC is portrayed as magical in the 2D animation at the beginning and the end of the film, but there are segments in the screenplay by Jay Scherick, David Ronn, and Blaise Hemingway that are problematic. Camp is believable and her acting is very natural as opposed to precocious. As her slacker uncle, Whitehall is really the foundation upon which this tale is built upon, but why a man and not a woman (the mother) if Emily Elizabeth’s father is going to be absent? This plotting does allow for a visit to the distinguished Wong and perhaps if there are more films, Wong will provide the steady father figure of subsequent films. Director Walt Becker (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip”) keeps a cheery upbeat tone throughout although that seems a bit weird when there’s fighting against the bad guys.
What I do enjoy without any reservations is the app the people at Paramount have produced for people to Clifford-size their own dogs.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is out theatrically and digitally on Paramount+. Rated PG for impolite humor, thematic elements, and mild action.
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