'Clifford the Big Red Dog' review: Plenty of fur, not a lot of heart

Popular children's book series comes to life in so-so big screen adaptation.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There aren't big red dogs, so it's completely understandable that in "Clifford the Big Red Dog," Clifford is a CGI creation. 

But even before he's a big red dog, Clifford is a little red dog. And instead of taking a real life pup and making him red — either through the use of nontoxic hair dye, or even color correction in post-production — the filmmakers use CGI, rendering him fake-looking, and making it hard to connect with the young Clifford. 

Darby Camp and Clifford in "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

Connection is the key in "Clifford," and the movie — based on the popular series of children's books by Norman Bridwell — doesn't do a good enough job of making audiences feel the magic of a giant red dog. Or is it the terror? It can go either way when you're talking about a fire truck-red, brontosaurus-sized canine running wild in New York City.

The goal here is "Paddington," the whimsical and charming 2014 film (and its equally adorable 2017 sequel), which was also based on a beloved series of children's books and managed to be funny, sweet, smart and full of heart. "Clifford the Big Red Dog" never gets there, or even comes close: it's silly and slapsticky and slobbery, and comes off like a puppy just learning how to behave. 

Darby Camp plays Emily, a 12-year-old living in Harlem, who is picked on by her classmates for not being snobby or rich like them. After her wacky uncle Casey ("Jungle Cruise's" Jack Whitehall) takes her to a bizarre Central Park animal rescue set up by Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese), she meets young Clifford, still small, and immediately takes to him. Bridwell informs her he will grow according to how much she loves him. 

The next morning he's as big as a room — it's a good thing her apartment is plenty spacious — and he starts causing all sorts of problems. For one, dogs aren't allowed in her apartment. For another, there's barely enough room for another Duane Reade in New York City, let alone a huge red pooch.

But New York — populated by a surprising number of current and former "SNL" stars (including Kenan Thompson, Alex Moffat, Horatio Sanz and Siobhan Fallon Hogan) — takes to Clifford surprisingly well, and he immediately becomes a neighborhood fixture and social media star. ("That's the dog all over Instagram!" is heard at one point.) But there's no movie without a conflict, so evil scientist Zack Tieran (Tony Hale) tries to kidnap Clifford to study him at his genetics lab. 

Director Walt Becker ("Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip") favors hijinks and bathroom humor over humanity, and "Clifford the Big Red Dog" is never more than surface-level cute, with generic messages about individualism and being oneself offered on top like treats. Clifford, first introduced in 1963, is a beloved character for good reason, but if you're fond of the tale's sense of imagination or wonder, they don't find their way to the screen. Stick with the books, at least they don't have any CGI. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Clifford the Big Red Dog'

GRADE: C

Rated PG: for impolite humor, thematic elements and mild action

Running time: 96 minutes

In theaters