Written by Patrick Hao
Walt Becker films fascinate me. The director of Old Dogs, Wild Hogs, and, of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, has always struck me as someone who has been able to differentiate himself from the forgettable fray of family friendly comedies destined to be played inoffensively on the back of an airplane headrest. Yet, Becker infuses his film with a gonzo sense of humor, which when mixed with his earnest sweetness might make his movies feel more at home with Troma than Disney. Truly, what makes him any more different than a faux provocateur director like Todd Phillips besides the fact that Becker has conviction in the films he makes and never decided to make a “prestige” picture.
That is not to say that Becker has made misunderstood masterpieces. He still has not gained a dedicated fan base touting his vulgar auteurist works the way that Tony Scott, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Jaume Collet-Serra have over the years. But, in any other hands, Clifford the Big Red Dog could have been a cynical cash grab instead of being the okay, slightly memorable children’s film that it is under Becker’s helm.
Clifford the Big Red Dog follows the basic premise of the much beloved children’s book series by Norman Bridwell. What if a little girl, Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) had a 25-foot dog? In this iteration, Emily is a bullied 12-year-old living with her single parent mother, scraping by paycheck to paycheck (insert hacky “But how do they afford their NYC apartment joke here”). While Emily’s mother is away, she is taken care of by Casey (Jack Whitehall), her layabout uncle. Emily, through silly circumstances, finds herself in possession of an unseemly red puppy, who either through love or magic grows into the giant-sized Clifford overnight.
Various forms of hijinks ensue. This is Clifford in New York City after all. The obstacle comes in the form of a game Tony Hale, who plays the head of a corporation who wants to make things big. Obviously, capturing Clifford would afford him the genetic testing to achieve that goal.
What distinguishes Becker’s films from others of his ilk is his distinct sincerity in what he is doing. Sure, there is the obligatory “rude humor” as the MPA likes to deem it through flatulence humor and balls to the… well balls. But Becker is able to infuse his movies with an earnest commitment to what he is doing – a message of found community.
That is why Becker took the care to construct a War Horse-esque puppet (stage version not the film version) for his actors to interact with. (Note to editor if you can attach a pic please do but if you feel it runs afoul of copyright obviously do not). It is that tactility that is able to give the film some sort of resonance above other family affairs. It also allows a legitimate good performance from Jack Whitehall, who anchors the film with a deft lightness in humor and warmth. If anything is a miscalculation, it would be Clifford’s appearance whose realistic fur and cartoony redness becomes an uncanny valley nightmare which makes the film look cheap.
Clifford is not a classic family film on its own. It is not going to garner the praise or devotees like the Paddington films. But Clifford does distinctly feel above the fray of other family films. This is not a cynical film nor is it a self-serious film. Walt Becker understood the assignment.
Clifford the Big Red Dog Trailer
Clifford the Big Red Dog is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.