The television series “Clifford the Big Red Dog” aired in 2000, so young adults today are pretty familiar with the premise: Clifford grows big from the love he receives. I remember it being one of my favorite cartoons as a kid because Clifford, though huge, was pretty cute and playful. His adventures with Emily Elizabeth were cute, and the lessons the show promoted were cute; basically, the whole series was cute. Now imagine that premise minus the cuteness. Take away the cartoon kids and the cartoon dog, and it’s all just a little scary.
In the 2021 film “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” Clifford is a 10-foot CGI red lab that wreaks havoc in Manhattan. Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp, “Big Little Lies”) finds Clifford inside an animal rescue tent run by Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese, “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee”). He’s just a small puppy when she sees him, but her Uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall, “Bad Education”) doesn’t allow Emily Elizabeth to take him home. Devastated, she leaves the tent, only to find that Clifford magically found his way into her backpack. She holds him all night long, and the next morning, Clifford can barely fit in the apartment.
Anyone who has seen even a glimpse of an ad for this film immediately notices the CGI. Clifford is no longer a childish cartoon. He’s a realistic-looking, ginormous red labrador. Sometimes, cartoons should be left as cartoons. There’s no need to frighten us with how close we can get to creating a huge true-to-life dog using CGI. It seems like the creators of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” were bored, decided to experiment and ended up creating a disturbing version of what was once a charming series.
There are other films that keep characters as cartoons in the real-world setting, and I’m always a little nervous about how they’ll turn out. However, it just seems like Clifford himself could have stayed a cartoon even if he was placed in real-life Manhattan. In the 2021 film “Tom and Jerry,” Tom and Jerry remain cute cartoons that wander throughout New York City. I don’t think anyone would’ve really enjoyed seeing a CGI cat and mouse play tricks on one another; it would take away the cuteness and the familiarity of the characters, which is exactly what happened with “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”
Despite these stylistic shortcomings, the film carries a heartwarming message about how we should react to things that are different. When Zach Tieran (Tony Hale, “Toy Story 4”), head of a laboratory called Lyfegro, sees the big red dog for the first time, he immediately wants to capture Clifford and run tests on him. He makes the public believe that Clifford is dangerous and must be controlled when, in reality, he’s harmless. Emily Elizabeth reminds us not to judge based on appearances — a moving message, especially for a young audience.
As a children’s movie, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” works. Kids will get a laugh out of Clifford’s antics while taking in a valuable lesson about not judging a book by its cover. However, I think many successful children’s films break out of that category, carrying deeper meaning and humor that adults can enjoy throughout. This is where the film falls flat. Multiple jokes don’t land, and the storyline is basic at best. Still, for what it is, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a film that children will probably want to see, even if it’s just for the big red CGI dog.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.