Author Norman Bridwell’s picture book series about Clifford the Big Red Dog represented a wholesome slice of mid-century Americana, with the self-explanatorily named title character, an enormous vermillion hound, loved and cared for by his owner Emily Elizabeth Howard, perhaps in the way an American dad of the period would have loved and cared for a Cadillac. A few TV series based on the story moved with the times but largely stuck to the kiddie-centric, suburban world of the books.
This reboot feature film has clearly taken its inspiration from the peerless Paddington films, which cleverly updated classic children’s literature property by resituating the setting to contemporary London, idealistically envisioned as a multicultural melange populated by lovable eccentrics. So here we have Clifford as a creature of New York City’s much-less-mean-than-they-used-to-be streets, depicted as another ethnically diverse yet entirely harmonious metropolitan utopia. After being whelped in an abandoned building and accidentally separated from his mum and siblings, Clifford passes through the hands of kindly animal vendor Mr Bridwell (John Cleese) before he ends up adopted by Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp, who is genuinely brilliant at selling the idea that she can see a giant CGI dog in front of her).
The only child of single-parent paralegal Maggie (Sienna Guillory), Emily Elizabeth is very much in need of a friend given she’s being forced to attend a snooty private school where she’s bullied by everyone except fellow outsider Owen (Izaac Wang, another gifted child actor). Clifford, still puppy-sized at this stage and supposedly less than a year old even though he looks like a full-grown dog already, is found inside Emily’s backpack the week that she’s being watched by her hapless uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall). In the morning, they wake up to find Clifford is about 10 feet tall and twice as long, having grown overnight on Emily’s love. Unfortunately, this violates the Howards’ no-pets rent agreement, resulting in much manoeuvring to keep Clifford a secret. Later they must try to keep him out of the hands of a nefarious tech company run by Tieran (Tony Hale) who wants to discover the secret of Clifford’s gigantism so that he can use it to grow GM foodstuffs, which wouldn’t be such a bad idea if it didn’t require separating Clifford and Emily Elizabeth and presumably vivisection experiments.
There is an embarrassment of riches in the supporting cast, including Rosie Perez, Tovah Feldshuh and Saturday Night Live alumni Alex Moffat and Kenan Thompson. But despite their sterling contributions, the script lacks the wit and polish of the aforementioned Paddington films, or even an average Pixar movie. Even so, it’s watchable and even occasionally amusing.
• Clifford the Big Red Dog is released on 10 December in cinemas.