Review: ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ (2021), starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong and John Cleese

November 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Darby Camp and Jack Whitehall in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Clifford the Big Red Dog”

Directed by Walt Becker

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the live-action/animated film “Clifford the Big Red Dog” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl’s stray puppy, which has an unusual red color, grows into a gigantic dog overnight, and she has conflicts with authority figures who want to take the dog away from her. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” cartoon fans, this movie version of the TV series will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable family films with a dull storyline and bland characters.

Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp and Izaac Wang in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

With not enough imagination and too many boring clichés, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” clumsily stumbles around more than this elephant-sized dog does in his New York City apartment. This is the first feature film based on Norman Bridwell’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog” children’s books series, which have also been turned into two separate animated TV series. Unfortunately, this franchise’s first movie (which is a combination of live-action and animation) is an embarrassing dud, with almost nothing that’s worthy of its cinematic format. It looks like a lazily conceived TV special, but with a movie studio budget that’s wasted on dull stupidity.

Directed by Walt Becker, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” was written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway in such a by-the-numbers way, it seems like a computer could’ve programmed this script and probably done a better job. The jokes fall flat, the characters are forgettable, and the plot is so unadventurous and maudlin, you wonder why it took three people to come up with such a drab screenplay. The filmmakers also made the mind-boggling, bad decision to not have the dog Clifford talk in the movie, as the dog does in the animated TV series. Not giving Clifford the ability to talk erases any personality through spoken dialogue that the dog might have had in the movie, which will surely disappoint many fans.

The basic plot of the movie “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is that a 12-year-old girl named Emily Elizabeth Howard (played by Darby Camp), who lives in an apartment in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, has a stray puppy whose fur is an unusual color: fire-engine red. She names the dog Clifford, and is told that she’s only allowed to keep him for one night. She wakes up the next morning to find that the dog has grown to be about 10 feet tall. Some hijinks ensue, as Emily tries to hide Clifford and tries to prevent people from taking the dog away from her.

But these hijinks have no real creativity and have been seen and done in many other movies where a child is trying to hide a secret and unusual companion that is in danger of being exploited and taken away for scientific experiments or for greedy business reasons. Everything in this movie is so predictable and with such mediocre visual effects, it’s almost offensive that this substandard project was given the budget of a feature film from a major movie studio.

And because Clifford doesn’t talk in this movie, the dog just does basic, run-of-the-mill things that dogs do. The filmmakers instead made the awful decision to make the comedy focused on Emily’s annoying and irresponsible uncle Casey (played by Jack Whitehall), who doesn’t particularly like the dog. Casey’s lines of dialogue are tepid or just downright cringeworthy. It tells you what you need to know right there about this dreck: A movie called “Clifford the Big Red Dog” just makes the dog a giant CGI prop to an irritating human being.

Emily lives with her single mother Maggie Howard (played by Sienna Guillory), a paralegal who’s stressed-out due to financial problems. Maggie is heavily in debt, and she’s barely making ends meet on her salary. Maggie often has to travel away from home when her boss does work outside the area. (Emily’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) And so, in addition to having financial woes, Maggie feels guilty about not being there for Emily as much as Maggie would prefer.

When Maggie is away on business, she has a trusted person look after Emily. And this time around, because Maggie can’t find anyone else on such short notice, she reluctantly asks her younger brother Casey to look after Emily while Maggie is away for a few days. Casey, who’s about 10 to 15 years younger than Maggie, hasn’t told his sister that he’s currently homeless and living in a moving truck.

Casey is the type of flake who shows up 45 minutes late for a job interview at a place called Kerner Comics & Design, where he had hoped to work as an illustrator. Needless to say, because of his tardiness, Casey doesn’t even make it past the reception area because he blew his chance for the interview. Before he leaves, he takes some free candy in the reception area and mumbles something about how this candy is his dinner for the day.

Casey is homeless because he and his live-in girlfriend broke up, and his student debts have made him unable to afford his own place. (The movie never bothers to mention anything else about Casey’s college education to explain why his student loan debts are his biggest expenses.) Casey is first seen in the movie trying unsuccessfully to talk his way out of a parking ticket. Instead of taking the ticket, he ends up running away from the parking enforcement officer.

Casey and Maggie’s family history is briefly mentioned much later in the movie. They were both born in England, but their family moved to the United States when Casey was 2 years old, which is why he doesn’t have a British acccent. (Whitehall is British in real life though.) Maggie and Casey’s mother died when Casey was still underage. Their dad “fell apart” (Casey’s words) after his wife died, so it was up to Maggie to raise Casey. She gave up a chance to go to Oxford University (where she had a scholarship) because she had these guardian responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Emily is in sixth grade at an elite private school, where she attends on a scholarship. Predictably, she’s bullied at school by a clique of snobby “mean girls,” who ridicule Emily with the nickname Food Stamp because they think Emily is so poor, her family must be getting food stamp welfare from the government. Emily is a sensitive and compassionate child who already feels like an outsider because she’s new to the school, having recently relocated with her mother from upstate New York.

In the beginning of the movie, Emily is seen going around the neighborhood to collect recyclable cans for a fundraising drive at her school. It’s just a reason for viewers to see other people who clutter up the story, just so the movie can have a certain number of adults who can later react to seeing gigantic Clifford walking around the neighborhood. The supporting characters in this movie are very generic and have uninspired lines of dialogue.

The neighborhood supporting characters include Packard (played by David Alan Grieri), the cranky superintendent of the building where Emily and Maggie live; Raul Sanchez (played by Horatio Sanz) and Alonso Sanchez (played by Paul Rodriguez), two brothers who own and operate a bodega; Malik (played by Russell Peters), who works in a convenience store; and married attorney couple Mr. Jarvis (played by Keith Ewell) and Mrs. Jarvis (played by Bear Allen Blaine). They all contribute to Emily’s haul of recycled cans.

Casey tries to be responsible when taking care of Emily, in an attempt to make up for mistakes he made in the past when she was under his care. One day, while they’re strolling through a nearby park, they see an animal rescue tent called Bridwell’s Animal Rescue. Emily asks Casey if they can go inside. He tells her yes, but only on the condition that she knows that they can’t take home any of the pets.

The tent on the inside actually looks like a dark Victorian parlor that has some dogs and cats, but they’re outnumbered by wild animals that could be at a zoo. They include creatures such as a sloth, a chameleon and an animal that looks like a baby giraffe. Emily and Casey are greeted by Bridwell (played by John Cleese), the owner who has a mysterious aura about him.

Bridwell steers Emily to take a look at an unusually red stray puppy that he recently found. It’s shown in the movie’s opening scene that this puppy was born into a stray family of yellow Labrador retrievers in a warehouse. His mother and siblings were taken away by workers at a local dog pound, while the red puppy, which wasn’t seen by the workers, was left behind. The puppy escaped into the streets, where Bridwell found him.

Emily immediately adores the puppy and wants to take it home, but Casey is firm in telling her that she can’t have the dog because dogs aren’t allowed in the apartment building. He also knows that Maggie wouldn’t approve of having a dog anyway. “How big is he going to get?” Emily asks Bridwell of this puppy. Bridwell answers, “That depends on how much you love him.”

When she’s at home in her bedroom, Emily can’t find any information about Bridwell’s Animal Rescue on the Internet. But what do you know: Emily finds the puppy has mysteriously ended up in her backpack. Casey allows her to keep the dog, but only for that night. She names the dog Clifford, because that’s the first name the dog responds to in a positive way.

At school, Emily brings a giant plastic bag filled with the recycled cans that she collected. The “mean girls” leader Florence (played by Mia Ronn) and her two sidekicks Isabelle (played by Madison Smith) and Melinda (played by Madison Morris) scoff at Emily and tell her that their parents just wrote checks for the fundraiser. Meanwhile, a fellow student named Owen Yu (played by Izaac Wang), who has a secret crush on Emily, notices that Emily is being ridiculed, so he tries to make her feel better by telling her that it’s admirable that she went to the trouble of collecting recyclables to raise money.

Emily brings her plastic bag into the classroom. The contents accidentally spill out, and many of the students laugh at her. Someone recorded the incident on a phone, and the video goes viral. At home that night, Emily is crying in her bed while holding on to Clifford. Before she goes to sleep, she tells Clifford: “I wish you were big and strong and the world couldn’t hurt us.” Just at that moment, it’s raining outside, and Bridwell is standing on the street outside her building, as if he can hear Emily’s wish.

You know what happens next: Emily wakes up and sees that Clifford is no longer a small puppy and is now a dog that’s 10 feet tall. She’s startled at first but gets over it quickly. By contrast, Casey is thoroughly freaked out. And just at that moment, the building superintendent Packer is coming over to the apartment to fix a plumbing problem. Then there’s the expected frantic rush to hide Clifford.

One of the biggest problems with “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is how most people’s reactions to seeing this giant dog are unrealistically calm. People react with curiosity, with some taking out their phones to film or take pictures of the dog. There aren’t as many panicked reactions as there should have been, which would’ve made this film a lot funnier.

For example, there’s a scene that takes place shortly after Clifford becomes a giant dog. Clifford sees a man walking in a giant plastic bubble in the park, so Clifford runs after the bubble, like a dog that wants to fetch a ball. The man inside is terrified, but most of the people in the park just stare at this dog causing terror. It’s not the way most people would really react, which is to run away from the sight of a giant dog and call for help.

The reaction from the authorities is also toned-down. There’s some effort to find the dog, but it’s not on the level of the dog being seen as a monstrous freak that needs to be captured. No military units are deployed, and New York City doesn’t go on lockdown for people’s safety. Clifford also shows up in Emily’s classroom, and the dog makes her popular with most of the students. Viewers of this movie will have to to assume this story takes place in an alternate world where people occasionally expect to see giant animals walking through New York City.

In fact, the only time that Clifford really seems in danger of being captured is when the corrupt president/CEO of a genetic engineering firm named Lyfegro finds out about Clifford. Lyfegro does scientific experiments on animals to find out how to grow large crops of food, in order to ease world hunger. Lyfegro’s greedy leader is named Zack Tieran (played by Tony Hale), who keeps genetically modified animals at his company lab. (For example: a two-headed sheep.) He doesn’t really care about world hunger or animals. He just wants to get rich.

All of the scenes involving Lyfegro are convoluted aspects of the plot, which should’ve just stuck to Clifford being hunted for capture by military or law enforcement, because it’s unsafe for a giant animal of this size to be walking around any area that’s populated with humans. There’s a very phony-looking press conference with Police Chief Watkins (played by Ty Jones), where he urges the public, “If you see something, say something,” as if this giant dog is the equivalent of a suspicious package.

Owen and Emily predictably get to know each other better and become closer. Owen’s father Mr. Yu (played by Russell Wong) also becomes part of the story because he’s a wealthy businessman who comes up with an idea for this situation when Clifford becomes a “wanted dog.” It’s an idea that might or might not pan out.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers try too hard to make Casey the comedic star of the movie. His panicked reactions are just dumb slapstick scenarios that are too corny to be funny. Casey’s “jokes” are abysmal. He says of Clifford turning into a giant dog overnight: “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to Burning Man.” It’s a weird joke for a movie intended for audiences where many of the viewers are too young to know what Burning Man is. A lot of adults who’ve never heard of Burning Man won’t get this unfunny joke either.

And speaking of terrible jokes, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” sinks to the lowest common denominator in scenarios involving bodily functions and body parts. When Clifford takes a leak (which looks like a small rain shower) on a tree, Casey remarks that he hopes the dog doesn’t “do No. 2.” At another point in the movie, Owen comments on his own anxiety: “I still can’t get my butt cheeks unclenched.”

Owen has a pug dog, so there’s a not-very-funny gag about someone lifting up the pug to Clifford’s level so the two dogs can smell each other’s rear ends when the two dogs meet each other for the first time. Later in the movie, Owen is hiding with Clifford in Casey’s truck, where Clifford farts, so Owen throws open the back door to run out for fresh air, thereby letting the dog out once again to run out on the streets. This is the type of lackluster slapstick comedy that’s in the movie.

The movie wastes the talent of several well-known actors, who are given very hollow characters to play in this vapid film. Kenan Thompson portrays an unnamed veterinarian who examines the giant Clifford at Banfield Pet Hospital. The dog ends up annoying the doctor because the dog wants to lick him on the face during the exam. Then there’s the inevitable dog-chases-man scene in the exam room. This veterinarian is one of many people in this movie who don’t seem too concerned about how big this dog is.

Rosie Perez has a very quick cameo as an employee named Lucille, who works at the pet hospital’s front desk. Lucille tells Emily, Casey and Owen that animals that come into the hospital from Bridwell Animal Rescue seem to have magical powers and that people who own these animals have their lives changed for the better. Lucille mentions two pet owners: one who was mute and began speaking after geting a pet from Bridwell; another pet owner couldn’t move and then gained an ability to walk.

Emily says she doesn’t have any physical disabilities, so she wonders what kind of miracle Clifford could bring to her life. But since this movie spells everything out for viewers from the beginning, it’s said in Bridwell’s voiceover narration: “Two lost souls are looking for one another, but they don’t know it yet.” Considering that Emily and Casey’s personal conflicts with each other take up more screen time than Emily bonding with Clifford, it’s easy to figure out who these “lost souls” are.

The characters of Emily and Owen are the only ones that have glimmers of likability and charm, thanks to the acting talent of Camp and Wang. However, the adult characters aren’t interesting at all, unless you consider it interesting to see an entire movie of Whitehall just mugging for the cameras while uttering badly written lines as the immature Casey. Hale is a noteworthy actor when he’s given good material, but in this movie, his Tieran character is a completely useless and mundane villain.

The visual effects for Clifford never look convincing. The movie might have been livened up a little if Clifford could talk. The end result is a dog that is a lumbering, awkward CGI giant, with no wit or personality. And that’s ultimately why “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a misfire on so many levels. The movie’s namesake comes across as soulless as the computer technology that created it.

Paramount Pictures will release “Clifford the Big Red Dog” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on November 10, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Dreamland’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in "Dreamland"
Margot Robbie and Finn Cole in “Dreamland” (Photo by Ursula Coyote)

 

“Dreamland”

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The first thing that you might notice about the dramatic film “Dreamland” is that Margot Robbie plays a character that’s similar to bank robber Bonnie Parker of Bonnie & Clyde fame. The movie takes place in Texas in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl drought era and when the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. It’s also when the real-life Bonnie & Clyde became famous outlaws for their bank robberies and murders. But even though Robbie’s Allison Wells character in “Dreamland” is clearly inspired by the real-life Bonnie Parker, this movie isn’t really about Allison’s crime spree. It’s more about the effect that she has on a naïve young man in his late teens named Eugene Evans (played by Finn Cole), after she convinces him to let her hide out on his family farm.

“Dreamland,” which takes place in 1935, is narrated by Eugene’s younger sister Phoebe (played by Darby Camp), who tells the story in voiceover as an adult 20 years later. (Lola Kirke is the voice of the adult Phoebe.) The family has gone through some hard times, even before the Great Depression. Eugene’s biological father, Don Baker, mysteriously disappeared when Eugene was still a very young child, and Don is presumed dead. Eugene’s mother, Olivia (played by Kerry Condon), doesn’t really like to talk about Don. As a child, Eugene is haunted by the idea that his father isn’t really dead but is really still alive and living in Mexico. Eugene dreams of eventually finding Don and reuniting with him. But the sad look in Olivia’s eyes tells viewers that Eugene’s father has abandoned them, and if he’s still alive, he’s not coming back into their lives.

Olivia eventually remarries. Her second husband is a police officer named George “Buck” Evans (played by Travis Fimmel), who adopts Eugene. The couple’s daughter is Phoebe, who’s about 10 years younger than Eugene. She’s a curious and intelligent child who admires her older brother for his kindness but worries that people will take advantage of his gullible nature. Buck rises through the ranks of the police force, and he’s a deputy sheriff at the time that Allison commits the Guthrie Plains bank robbery that has resulted in the deaths of multiple people, including her lover/partner in crime Perry Montroy, a Clyde Barrow-like character. Perry (played by Garrett Hedlund) and the deadly bank robbery are seen in brief flashbacks.

When Eugene first encounters Allison, he’s found her hiding in a barn on the Evans family property. She’s wounded from a gunshot in her leg, and Eugene helps her remove the bullet. Her fugitive status is all over the news, and there’s a $10,000 reward to anyone who captures her. But Eugene is instantly smitten by Allison’s beauty and seductive charm.

Eugene doesn’t think Allison is as bad as the police say she is because Allison has told him that although she was involved in the bank robbery, she wasn’t involved in the death of the young girl who was an innocent bystander killed during the robbery. Allison tells Eugene that the police have inaccurately described the death as a murder, but Allison says the death happened accidentally when a stray bullet hit the girl.

Allison also offers Eugene $20,000 to hide her and to help her escape after she’s had some time to heal from her bullet wound. It’s a proposition that Eugene accepts with not much hesitation because he and his stepfather Buck don’t really get along—and more importantly to Eugene, he starts to think that he and Allison can run away together to Mexico, where he can reunite with his father, and they can all live happily ever after.

Eugene, who’s in charge of taking care of the family farm, knows it won’t be that hard to hide Allison since Buck is a workaholic who doesn’t spend much time at home anyway. And besides, no one would suspect that Allison would be hiding out at the home of one of the law-enforcement officers tasked with finding her. It isn’t long before Eugene takes another big risk for Allison—he breaks into the police station at night, steals evidence about the robbery, and burns it. When a police officer at the station sees Eugene in the office where the evidence is, Eugene hurriedly makes up a lie and says that he’s there to get police files for Buck.

There’s a close call when inquisitive Phoebe almost finds Allison in the barn, but Eugene is able to steer her away just in time. But that tactic can only work for so long. Phoebe finds out about Eugene’s secret, but he convinces her not to tell anyone. Buck’s suspicions about Eugene are also raised when Buck gets blamed for the missing evidence, and he finds out about Eugene’s late-night visit to the police station.

Amid all of this family tension, a terrible dust storm hits the area, causing destruction on what became known as Black Sunday. The cinematography of “Dreamland” (from cinematographer Lyle Vincent) is one of the best things about the movie, and the visuals during this storm are especially stunning.

“Dreamland” director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte skillfully uses techniques that show the subtle artistry of someone who can tell a story with what you don’t see on camera as much as what you do see. For example, a pivotal seduction scene with Allison and the virginal Eugene shows that Allison and Eugene are talking in an intimate moment where Eugene is doubting that he made the right decision to help Allison, and he’s almost afraid to touch her. She can be heard but not seen for much of the scene, as the camera lingers on Eugene to show the effect that she is having on him. Some directors would have made the obvious choice to focus the camera on Robbie’s beauty, but the scene demonstrates how dialogue can be more powerful in seduction than someone’s physical appearance.

Robbie, who is one of the producers of “Dreamland,” does a very good job of playing the morally ambiguous Allison, but she doesn’t have as much screen time in the movie as people might think she does. Allison and Eugene don’t spend a lot of time together on screen. It’s a testament to the power of Allison’s manipulation, because Eugene takes a lot of risks for Allison without the reward of being with her in a normal, happy romance that he wants them to have. Eugene is the heart and soul of the movie, and Cole convincingly plays him not as a fool but as someone who thinks doing anything for true love will justify whatever it takes to get it.

The pacing in “Dreamland” is a little slow in some areas, but the third act of the movie makes up for it, as the hunt for Allison takes an intense turn where hard choices are made and people’s true characters are put to the test. But just to be clear: Most of “Dreamland” isn’t about chase scenes between cops and robbers. It’s about what can happen when people steal things more valuable than money—hearts and trust.

UPDATE: Paramount Pictures will release “Dreamland” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 17, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.

Netflix does a remake of the classic family dog film ‘Benji’

March 6, 2018

"Benji" (Photo courtesy of Netflix"
“Benji” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix’s remake of the classic film “Benji” premieres on March 16, 2018. Here are details from Netflix:

More than 40 years after becoming one of the most beloved dogs in cinematic history, Benji is back to inspire a new generation. Written and directed by ​Brandon Camp, ​”Benji” blends action, drama, humor, and sweetness into a heartwarming tale for the whole family.

“Benji” will become available exclusively to Netflix members worldwide on ​Friday, March 16, 2018​, at 12:01 a.m. PST. Produced by Emmy Award®-winning and Oscar®-nominated producer ​Jason Blum​ (​”Get Out ,” ​”The Normal Heart,” ​”Whiplash”), it stars ​Kiele Sanchez​, ​Gabriel Bateman​, ​Darby Camp​, ​Will Rothhaar​, Angus Sampson​, and ​Gralen Bryant Banks​.   “Family-oriented movies that make you feel good are always powerful, but I think particularly when the world looks like it looks today, they’re especially powerful,” Blum says. “I think the timing is very good in terms of introducing a new Benji to the world.”

Camp is uniquely qualified to bring back the lovable mutt: His father, ​Joe Camp​, wrote and directed the 1974 film and its sequels. “I literally was born into ​Benji,” Brandon says with a laugh. (He’s not exaggerating: His mother, producer ​Carolyn Camp​, nearly gave birth to him on the set of the original.)   He adds: “I thought one of the reasons ​”Benji” was so successful in the first place was because it wasn’t loud or trying to be something that it wasn’t; it was a simple story about a little dog with all the heart in the world. I wanted to retell that same story for modern audiences.”

Set in the heart of New Orleans, Netflix’s “​Benji” tells the story of a homeless, unwanted mutt who befriends two adoring kids – and then does all he can to protect them.   Shortly after young Carter (​played by Gabriel Bateman​) spots Benji on the street after school one day, he forges a special bond with the shaggy friend. He and his sister, Frankie (​Darby Camp​), beg their mother (​played by Kiele Sanchez​) to let Benji join the family, but the last thing the struggling single mom needs is another mouth to feed.   “The plot thickens when, unfortunately, Benji is cast out on the street, and our two kids find themselves in jeopardy,” Camp says. “Despite the fact that Benji is homeless and it looks like things might not work out with Carter and Frankie, he still does everything in his power to make sure that those kids are safe at the end of the day.”

After a robbery goes wrong, two criminals (​played by Will Rothhaar​ and ​Angus Sampson​) wind up taking the kids far from home. Little do they know that the police — and Benji — are on their trail.

“Really, the movie is about perseverance, following your heart, and never, ever giving up,” adds Camp. “That was evident in the first movie, and I wanted to bring those simple values back into live-action movie-making in a way that we just haven’t seen, frankly, since the original.”

 

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