Clifford the Big Red Dog

Written by Patrick Hao

55/100

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+.

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Paddington

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Paddington, an immensely huggable young Peruvian bear, ventures to London in search of a family after an earthquake destroys his home in the rain forest. People aren’t quite as nice or welcoming as he thought they’d be when he first arrives, but then he hits the jackpot: enter Sally Hawkins, as irresistible as ever, as Mrs. Brown, an artist who welcomes Paddington into her family’s home with more warmth and kindness than any immigrant could hope for.

Mr. Brown and his children are as skeptical as one might expect them to be about co-habitating with a bear (the daughter thinks Paddington will be an embarrassment, Mr. Brown, who’s hilarious, thinks he’s a liability to the house and kids), but eventually they come around. The whimsical and colorful design of the Brown household and the removal of walls for tracking shots from room to room are evocative of a Wes Anderson movie, but whereas Anderson deliberately distances you from the spaces he builds, Paul King invites you in. The spiral staircase at the center of the house is up against a floor to ceiling wall decal of a tree with pink leaves that you want to reach out and touch, and that you can imagine reminds Paddington of his home and relatives when he climbs the banister (instead of taking the stairs as the humans do).

Paddington’s search for the British explorer who once visited his Peruvian homeland and the threat of a taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, delightfully icy) hunting Paddington give the narrative its forward momentum, but its the time spent in the Brown household that gives the film its most memorable charm. There are a handful of fish-out-of-water (or bear-out-of-the-rainforest?) bits that employ comic timing and musical cues to great effect (such as Paddington’s first experience with a human’s bathroom, him snatching a stranger’s dog when he reads a “Dogs Must Be Carried” sign next to an escalator, the entirety of a bank heist-like sequence at a geographical society building), but it’s the image of a cozy attic bedroom that the Browns make up for Paddington, and Hawkins poking her head up through the ceiling to check on him, that distill the movie’s unique loveliness.

Paddington Trailer