It’s a classic childhood problem: You meet a small, Kool-Aid-red puppy from some old guy with a British accent and a tent full of animals. You find him in your backpack a day later and convince your irresponsible uncle-slash-babysitter to let you keep the puppy overnight despite your building’s no-pet policy. You name him Clifford. The next morning you wake up and the puppy’s... bigger. Like, roughly the size of an elephant.
Clifford the Big Red Dog, a new film adaptation of the classic children’s books that stars a CGI dog of epic proportions, announces its premise pretty neatly in the title. Darby Camp, who became a Twitter sensation as Reese Witherspoon’s precocious younger daughter in Big (!) Little Lies, plays Clifford’s human companion Emily Elizabeth. The unlikely companions’ story unfolds in relatively predictable fashion, except when it doesn’t. (Spoiler I never expected I’d have to write: There are killer sheep in this Clifford movie.)
In some moments, it can feel as though the film is trying a little too hard, biting off just a bit more social commentary than it’s capable of chewing. But those moments are sparing in a film that delivers all the expected thrills and then some in heartwarmingly goofy fashion.
Emily Elizabeth and her mother, Maggie (Sienna Guillory), live in a rent-controlled Harlem apartment that might as well be a dollhouse. (Frilly wallpapers, sumptuous hardwood, vintage-looking appliances.) But the young girl is an outcast at her expensive school, where one particularly noxious classmate calls her “Food Stamp.” When Maggie leaves for a work trip, placing Emily in the care of irresponsible uncle Casey, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come stumbling in.
We first meet Clifford as a tiny, terrified puppy crying alone in a warehouse after animal services collected his mother and siblings but failed to spot him. Thankfully, he manages to find his way into a park (after much adorable stumbling and tumbling) and meet John Cleese, who plays a goodly animal collector with a fanciful bowtie collection. Like any savvy uncle, Casey knows from the moment Emily spots the old man’s animal tent that he’s about to battle the inevitable.
But the real action begins when Clifford the Big Red Dog actually becomes big. And this is where I must address the actual elephant in the room: How does this big CGI dog really look?
As a devout dog person, I’m typically not enamored of CGI pooches; they usually strike me like some unholy Sims creature that clawed their way out of a very expensive uncanny valley. Their movement always feels just a hair too delicate, their steps a tad too weightless. I find myself resenting the trick unfolding before my eyes and long for the live-action fare I grew up on, technological and aesthetic advancements be damned.
But friends, let me tell you: Clifford looks great. He’s big, red, and ridiculous—bounding through the park to chase one of those guys walking around in a plastic ball, saving people from deadly falls with a well-coordinated catch, and, at one point, accidentally almost swallowing (?!!?!) a pug. His eyes are glassy and expressive enough to make Baby Yoda sweat in a galaxy far, far away. This is the computer-generated dog taken to its extreme, and you simply must appreciate the courage it took to get us here.
It’s hard to keep a giant, bright red mutt a secret for too long, and soon enough Clifford is a viral sensation. That’s where our villain comes into play: Tony Hale plays a tech mogul named Tieran, who reckons whatever genetic mutation made Clifford so big and so red just might help save his floundering quest to engineer giant foods to cure world hunger. So far he’s only managed to breed some... very interesting sheep.
Clifford the Big Red Dog’s winning charm and excellent performances from Camp, Jack Whitehall as Uncle Casey, and Izaac Wang as a classmate of Emily’s who might just have a giant crush on her make it a fun romp from beginning to end. Camp and Whitehall, in particular, share a gift for comedic timing that makes their scenes crackle.
There’s also the usual fun hodgepodge of guest stars: Kenan Thompson puts his reaction-GIF eyes to excellent use as Clifford’s stunned veterinarian, and Rosie Perez plays his office manager; Tovah Feldshuh plays Emily’s elderly, condensed milk-obsessed Russian neighbor; David Alan Grier plays the stern building super, Packard; and Alex Moffat plays one of Hale’s minion scientists.
Still, the script occasionally delves into awkward territory; it treats Casey living in a van due to student debt as a running joke, an odd decision especially as an eviction crisis unfolds before our eyes. The film seems somewhat interested in speaking to The Moment, whatever that might be; at the very least, it’s clearly interested in promoting a spirit of togetherness. It’s the giant pooch at its center, however, that we all came to see—and on that front, I’m pleased to say this film delivers. This is an extremely cute movie about a girl and her big red dog, and it works best when we just leave it at that.