The smart and empathetic Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) is the outsider at her new prestigious New York private school. The 12-year-old is bullied by the mean girls who call her “food stamps,” but she has a gorgeous, rent-controlled apartment to return to her with her single mother Maggie (Sienna Guillory). When mom goes out of town on some vague paralegal business, she asks her ne’er-do-well brother Casey (a fun Jack Whitehall), who lives in his van, to keep on eye on Emily and stay out of trouble.
Emily and Uncle Casey are walking one day when they spot an animal carnival run by the mysterious Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese)—a nod to the author of the source material, Norman Bridwell. The Wizard of this Oz shows Emily through his tent of magical animals to a room where she meets Clifford as a small, adorable, somewhat creepily rendered puppy. For some reason, the puppy version of Clifford looks more unrealistic than the giant one. Perhaps it’s because we know what puppies should look like more than dogs who are the size of small buildings, but the puppy Clifford is a bizarre choice, a cartoonish creation that never looks like it’s sharing the same space as Emily. He’s about as believable a movie creature as Roger Rabbit.
After Clifford sneaks home with Emily, Casey tells her that she will have to return the little red guy the next day, sending the poor girl to bed wishing that something would change. She wakes up to find the Clifford that librarians know and love, a giant, expressive, joyous red dog. Casey panics and the center of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” consists of “Clifford hijinks,” as expected. They try to hide him from the grumpy super (David Alan Grier); he ends up at school, where he licks the mean girl into future trauma; he even saves somebody’s life. None of this is particularly memorable, but it’s also nowhere near as grating as it could have been. There’s a light touch to even the scenes of giant dog slobber that keep the movie moving. As a parent of three, I have seen more interminable family films than most non-parents probably know exist, and Becker keeps “Clifford the Big Red Dog” moving when it matters.
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