Credit: K.C. Bailey/Paramount Pictures
Blockbuster Beat by Morris Yang Featured Film

Clifford the Big Red Dog | Walt Becker

November 8, 2021

Clifford the Big Red Dog is vapid, conceptually nihilistic, and utterly soulless “entertainment.”

When moviegoers go to the movies, they typically do so with certain expectations: to be entertained, to feel something, to unwind from reality and escape into fantasy, to derive, in short, some utility from the experience greater than that if they had not. Before we criticize this observation as a fool’s errand in attempting to rationalize artistic jouissance, or lament its lack of inclusivity (there are those, after all, who will visit their local cineplex or boot up their streaming subscriptions on a lazy Sunday afternoon out of sheer apathy), we should stop to consider what it is that makes us moviegoers; that makes us, for example, readers of In Review Online — not exactly your typical corporate shill (although the existence of this review might presage ominous developments in this direction); that makes us check out, specifically, this already-verbose piece of writing, filed under “Blockbuster Beat” (although “Streaming Scene” wouldn’t be invalid either). Is it our cultural/familial proclivity for the moving image, assimilated in childhood over starchy TV dinners? Is it the cusp of horny, lonely adolescence? Is it each fledgling adult’s assertion of individualism and self-actualization, through rejection of the postmodern and return to days of cinephilia? Is it the phase of settling, in your thirties, for comfortable, socially congenial taste? Is it the lore of parenthood, to accompany their children through the same formative cycle they grew out of? Is it the decrepit house of old age? Or are we forced into this unloved yet universal enterprise at gunpoint?

The reason for this seemingly unwarranted assault on the average Joe’s sensibility becomes soberingly clear with the arrival of a film whose target audience is neither quite average nor quite sensible. In fact, it’s not even clear who the target audience of Clifford the Big Red Dog is. Sure, the title should evoke prim-and-proper nostalgia from both first- and subsequent-generation readers of Norman Bridwell’s eponymous children’s book series first published in 1963 by Scholastic; while kids these days aren’t exactly familiar with Clifford and his human owner and friend, eight-year-old Emily Elizabeth, they also aren’t exactly averse to the wholesome and humanistic fables their larger-than-life adventures contain either. With just the faintest recognition necessary for its perpetual cultural signification, Clifford should, in theory, snugly supply the harness to its capital valuation, whether through toy collectibles, spin-off novellas, fanfics (to the extent children read those), some new ice-cream flavor courtesy of Ben & Jerry (cherry licorice?), or through something toddlers can conveniently peruse on their iPad screens. Cue the live-action adaptation hence, helmed by Walt Becker (best known for directing one of Alvin and the Chipmunks’ forgettable squeakquels) and set in a New York City borough so simultaneously über-hip and saccharine you’d be forgiven for thinking Lin-Manuel Miranda had his fists jammed right up it.

Narrated with the canned benevolence of an insurance ad and lensed quite possibly under the manifolds of Saran wrap, Clifford the Big Red Dog loosely adapts the book classic, transfiguring the canine’s origin story as a Christmas present for Emily (Darby Camp) into a tangentially mysterious one in which the dog, previously abandoned by its mother and having found its way to one Mr. Bridwell (named after the original author and inexplicably played by John Cleese), appears unsuspectingly in Emily’s apartment. Incidentally, she’s a sixth-grader whose vocabulary includes “atrocious” and “abysmal,” and whose precociousness is measured against the happy-go-lucky temperament of her young and homeless uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall). Casey’s a decent man but an otherwise all-round loser, as he takes pains to illustrate later on, and when his sister (Emily’s mother) has to leave the city for work, he assumes the role of Emily’s guardian to questionable success. After all, the dog has blossomed from a whimpering runt into an exuberant giant overnight, and aside from the mayhem its simple tail-wagging engenders, both uncle and niece must contend with grander problems: the landlord hates pets, and a genetics company hungry for giant-animal technology wants Clifford as their own. Oh, and the company’s CEO, Peter (Tony Hale), has a “slappable” face. Oh, and Emily is unsurprisingly the butt of her bullies’ jokes at school, having been christened as “Food Stamps” by virtually everyone except this one stereotypically nerdy Asian kid, Owen (Izaac Wang), whose crush on her proves bigger and more blindingly obvious than the big red dog.

With these facts in mind, the average Joe might be tempted to approach Clifford with a somewhat wary irony, calibrated against the infantilized source material so that the latter may reveal nuggets of moral wisdom hitherto dismissed as moralizing tripe. In short, one could conceivably view Clifford as an exercise in collective wish-fulfillment, undertaken by grown-ups and youngins alike: the adults knowingly indulging in the spectacle of moral nostalgia, and the kids internalizing this spectacle as the very reality of childhood imagination and creativity. The problem here, however, is that Clifford isn’t a film deserving of irony; as it were, applying a detached and cynical perspective onto something gratingly sincere might provoke much-needed catharsis, but transplanting said perspective onto something itself potently cynical and in-the-know forces nothing short of immediate abjection. That is to say, most of Becker’s direction (insofar as one may direct amidst pre-existing studio IP) culminates in the sense of a family comedy at once cloying and cringeworthy, unironically peddling emotive tropes and templates with little enunciation of each. Why should anyone buy Emily’s characterization as a smart aleck, and — more pressingly — sympathize with her on the basis of scant peer interaction (which terraforms Mean Girls into a terrifying rebus of High School Musical)? Why do she and Casey sound exactly like cast members paid to rehearse unfathomably clumsy comebacks, instead of being their purported characters? What is Mr. Bridwell’s function here, beyond obligatory tribute; does he serve a meta-textual role in bridging the viewer’s gap between self-aware irony and cautious sincerity?

All these questions still can’t quite confront the elephant in the room, or more accurately, the wagging, panting, blood-red, and animatronic giant canine. As with other plentiful examples of 21st-century commercialization, Bridwell’s source text undergoes a cultural shift frequently downplayed as nothing but cosmetic: remove the smartphones and savvy Spy Kids set-ups, the logic goes, and what’s left is little different from an ostensibly 1960s Disney filmic adaptation. But this logic neglects the productive conditions of Clifford’s various iterations; that audiences and generations change, and that an appeal to amity as part of a wider conservative proselytizing would take drastically different shape from that done in the name of, say, liberal internationalism. Now, before this cements the writers at InRO as intellectual hacks, it must be noted that Clifford’s metaphors, whatever they may be, are generally not the kind easily appropriated by contrarians; they are applied vacuously and rotely, synonymous with a musical without music, with only preset beats and hip-hop routines permitted. (There’s even an attempt at Latinx representation in Clifford’s borough, among a group of friendly working-class men.) With this gross aesthetic simplification, even metaphor escapes the film. The result of slogging on a tiresome game of catch with the Big Red Dog is a grotesque, indeterminate portrait of tolerance and acceptance, pitting childish humanism against the cartoonish and half-assed tyranny of Big Tech. Admittedly, a couple of gags do elicit knee-jerk laughter. But to speak of “two lost souls” (Emily and Clifford, that is) finding each other is to laughably endow a CGI mongrel with one, and to assume that its companion’s has more than a single dimension. As cultural text, Clifford the Big Red Dog embodies vapidity, coming close to the conceptual nihilism of Space Jam: A New Legacy. As entertainment, it’s soulless torture.

You can catch Walt Becker’s Clifford the Big Red Dog in theaters or streaming on Paramount+ beginning on November 10.