Clifford the Big Red Dog was born in a series of children’s books, the first of which was published in 1963. In the decades since, the adventures of the scarlet canine mascot-hero have been spun into three popular PBS Kids TV series, a live musical, video games, and the 2004 animated feature “Clifford’s Really Big Movie,” which was adapted from one of the TV series (and did very little business). All of which is to say that unlikely as it may sound, the new “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is the first really big Clifford movie. So what does that mean?
It means that the film retains some of the benign humanistic qualities of its source, but that it has also been shoved into the knockabout slapstick high jinks paradigm of such CGI-critter-meets-live-action comedies as “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Garfield: The Movie” and the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films. Most of those movies feature animated heroes who talk like corrupt comedy writers, but in “Clifford” the title character remains pure: a puppy who looks like a Labrador Retriever (and has a Lab’s sweet temperament), with fur as red as Santa’s suit, who grows to be 10 feet tall and 25 feet long but remains in every way an adorable puppy — extending to the fact that he doesn’t talk. No overblown anthropomorphic kitsch here.
If anything, the movie’s Clifford, who is every inch a genuine (giant) dog, is less overtly goofy than the PBS version. But have no fear: The movie, directed by Walt Becker (who did one of the “Alvin” films), more than makes up for that restraint with its aggressively giddy tone of over-the-top wholesome vandalism — a tone born in the comedies of the 1980s that has never really gone away. Come to think of it, the tone has been around for longer than that. I first experienced it in the 1966 Disney comedy “The Ugly Dachshund,” and in my 7-year-old way I thought it was over-the-top then.
In “Clifford,” the central character, Emily Elizabeth, is played by Darby Camp as a winsomely freckled, likably sincere sixth grader trying to cope with the wealthier mean-girl students in her elite Harlem private school; they call her “Food Stamp.” But when her single mother goes off on a business trip, the caretaker duties fall to her Uncle Casey, played by the actor-comedian Jack Whitehall as the kind of catch-phrase-happy homeless millennial loser who suggests Jason Lee crossed with the second coming of Carson Daly. Whenever a scene threatens to get too staid, you can count on him to drop a line like “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to Burning Man.”
Emily finds Clifford, who starts off as an ordinary-size puppy, when she and Casey wander into a storybook rescue shelter run by Mr. Bridwell (played by John Cleese and named for the book series’ author, Norman Bridwell). Clifford winds up stowing away in her backpack, and a few days later she wakes up with his face hovering right over her; he is now, magically, as big as her bedroom. I’m not sure how many directions a movie like this one can truly go in, but “Clifford the Big Red Dog” serves up its share of affable mayhem all caused by Clifford, in his big-dog innocence, with a flick of his tail. At the park, a man rolling around in a body bumper ball becomes a casualty of Clifford’s sheer friskiness.
Is there a smirky annoying villain cut from the satirical cloth of today’s headlines? Of course there is. His name is Tieran (Tony Hale), and he’s a greedy control-freak tech entrepreneur who is trying to grow and market genetically modified oversize food; he spies Clifford, sees a gold mine (for some reason), and bogusly claims that the dog escaped from his laboratory. “Clifford the Big Red Dog” becomes a rowdy chase film — as agreeable as Clifford himself, as simultaneously cute and in-your-face, and as genially random in its ability to create chaos.