Clifford the Big Red Dog is (finally) hitting theaters and Paramount+ on November 10th and the question on everyone's mind is, can a live action movie do the adorable books and subsequent cartoon series(s) justice? Audiences are, rightfully so, harsh on films that take a lovable cartoon and turn it into a live action film and while some have been huge hits, others have been real head scratchers. So where does Clifford the Big Red Dog fall? Is this PG rated film OK for younger audiences to view? I'm sharing my thoughts on these questions and more in my no-spoilers review.
Disclaimer: I was granted early access to Clifford the Big Red Dog for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Clifford the Big Red Dog Movie Review + Virtual Activities
When middle-schooler Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) meets a magical animal rescuer (John Cleese) who gifts her a little, red puppy, she never anticipated waking up to find a giant ten-foot hound in her small New York City apartment. While her single mom (Sienna Guillory) is away for business, Emily and her fun but impulsive uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) set out on an adventure that will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat as our heroes take a bite out of the Big Apple. Based on the beloved Scholastic book character, Clifford will teach the world how to love big!
Related: Clifford the Big Red Dog Printable Activities
Clifford the Big Red Dog | No-Spoilers, Parent Review
Clifford the Big Red Dog has an almost unrealistic task to accomplish. It has to explain how or why Clifford grew to be so big in a real world setting - some things are just easier to do in cartoon form.
Clifford, as you may or may not know, was born a small pup, so small in fact that in the book Emily Elizabeth gives puppy Clifford a bath in a tea cup! Clifford grew to be so large due to the amount of love Emily Elizabeth had for him. Adorable, right? The explanation in the live action film, is the same but it also feels very, unexplained at the same time. There are hints that magic may be involved but audiences aren't ever given any kind of full explanation.
The plot of Clifford the Big Red Dog tries to do too much. It tries to give us a background story for Clifford, and while it successfully gives us a lesson on overcoming bullying, and it also tries to give us a "bad guys" storyline through a big corporation who hopes to be able to harness whatever made Clifford so big for their own use.
Audiences will see hijinks and have a few laugh out loud moments as you might expect when a 10 foot, bright red dog goes to the vet but there is also a lot of heart and teachable moments in regards to bullying and standing up for one's self.
Related: Clifford the Big Red Dog Q&A with the Cast
Stark Differences from the Books
There are quite a few differences from the books and cartoon series(s) to the live action film.
Instead of living with both her mom and her dad, in a Martha's Vineyard-esque town, Emily Elizabeth lives only with her mom in Manhattan.
Emily Elizabeth's missing father allows for the introduction of a new male lead, Uncle Casey.
Another difference is Clifford does not talk. Live action films have to walk a fine line when it comes to mixing whimsy with the real world and I guess creators thought having this 10 foot dog talk would be too much for New Yorkers to handle.
Throughout this PG film there are some minor terms and phrases used such as "idiot", "sucks", "dumb", and referencing that someone is "going to kill me".
In one scene we see Emily Elizabeth being bullied by a classmate and said classmate insinuates that Emily Elizabeth is on food stamps and phrases it in a way that is clearly meant to be derogatory.
In what I think may be the only instance of "adult humor" comes from Uncle Casey when he defensively tells Emily Elizabeth he in fact "won" her back after she references a time he "lost" her in Atlantic City.
In the opening of the film there is some "puppy peril" where we see a tiny Clifford trying to navigate the mean streets of New York; he's dodging cars and bicycles.
There is a scene with "comedic fighting", no real weapons are used and no one is seriously injured but they are actively trying to fight each other, just not very well.
Later on in the film audiences will see children attempting to drive a vehicle and there will be a mild chase scene with Emily Elizabeth and Clifford trying to escape the "bad guys".
The PG Rating
Clifford the Big Red Dog is rated PG for "impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action".
The action is certainly mild and the impolite humor mostly occurs at the aforementioned vet scene (the Vet is played perfectly by Kenan Thompson). Later on potty humor is used again as Clifford has to.. go (get it?) while at a park.
Related: Tom and Jerry The Movie | No-Spoilers, Parent Review
My Final Thoughts
I was excited for this film. I wanted to love this film. Somehow this film has just fallen flat for me.
Maybe I'm too much of a purist, and maybe this is something I'm learning about myself now through this film, but I thought some of the deviances from the source materials for Clifford were kind of unnecessary.
Why move the characters to Manhattan? Why take away Emily Elizabeth's father? Why not have Clifford talk? I mean, this is a world where a 10 foot dog is running around town, no one would believe he also talks? Perhaps if Clifford was animated instead of CGI (like Tom and Jerry in their recent live action film) having Clifford talk would not have been as big of a stretch.
Something that stuck out to me was the decision to have Jack Whitehall, an English actor, speak with an American accent in the film while, his costar, Sienna Guilory, also an English actor, who plays his sister (and Emily Elizabeth's mom) speak with her English accent. There is a throw away line from Uncle Casey that attempts to explain the bizarre accent situation, I'm not sure if this was an attempt at some self-aware comedy or not, but it doesn't do much for making any of it make sense.
In terms of casting, Clifford the Big Red Dog is practically perfect. Darby Camp plays the role of Emily Elizabeth well and she certainly commands attention when she is speaking. Jack Whitehall is a mix of Adam Brody and John Mulaney that really works for the Uncle Casey character. He's extremely likable, he's very funny and clearly has a heart of gold.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is filled with "Hey! I know him!" moments. The cast features wonderful comedic actors like Kenan Thompson, David Allen Grier, Horatio Sanz, and Tony Hale. All of these comics are perfectly cast in their roles and yet none of them have enough time on screen.
The biggest offense, in my opinion however, is how underused John Cleese is in this film. I would have loved for him to have been utilized as the narrator throughout the entire film instead of only in the opening sequence.
Clifford the Big Red Dog had big shoes to fill, and while there were certainly some stumbles in this film there is also a lot of heart and I think children will think it is fun to see a giant, red, CGI dog squeezing into vans and buildings, slobbering on people and peeing in the park.
Age recommendation for Clifford the Big Red Dog: 5+
This film was made for younger audiences, it is a quintessential children's film. Parents can use Emily Elizabeth's experience at school as a way to talk to children about bullying; expressing the importance of being kind and also the importance of finding their voice and standing up for themselves or standing up for someone or something who doesn't have a voice.
Clifford the Big Red Dog arrives in theaters and on Paramount+ November 10th.
Clifford the Big Red Dog | Virtual Activity: Cliffordsize Your Pet
Ever wonder what your pet would like if they were the size of Clifford? Wonder no more!
Using your smartphone or tablet, head to cliffordsizeyourpet.cliffordmovie.com and scan the QR code!
Clifford the Big Red Dog | Virtual Activity: Clifford AR
Want your very own (virtual) Clifford? Enter the Clifford AR on your smartphone!
Have Clifford lay down and roll over and snap a pic of the pup too!