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.

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ starring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan

March 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)

“Raya and the Last Dragon”

Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional world of Kumandra, the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” features a predominantly Asian voice cast of characters (with some white people) representing different cultures in this fantasy world.

Culture Clash: After a terrible plague has turned her father into a stone statue, a teenage girl named Raya goes in search of a mysterious dragon and missing pieces of a magical gem in war-torn Kumandra, in order to restore peace and safety to Kumandra.

Culture Audience: “Raya and the Last Dragon” will appeal primarily to people who enjoy visually stunning, well-written animation adventures that are family-friendly and have positive themes.

Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) and Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) in “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Walt Disney Animation has become the premiere studio for animated movies about princesses who are more like warriors than damsels in distress. And with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney has delivered another instant classic. The movie’s voice cast is predominantly Asian, which is a big step forward for diversity in American-made animated films. The ethnicity of the characters is not the main focus of the story, nor does it have to be, since “Raya and the Last Dragon” has an overall theme of compassion in understanding people’s differences.

Four people are credited with directing “Raya and the Last Dragon”: directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa. Fortunately, the results don’t look like “too many cooks in the kitchen,” since this well-cast and gorgeously filmed movie has a consistent tone throughout the story. The movie’s protagonist is a girl named Raya, pronounced “ry-ah” (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who explains in a voiceover intro about how her world of Kumandra has been torn apart by tribal feuding and a mystical plague called the Druun, which turns living beings into stone.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of those movies where it’s best not to miss the first 10 minutes, because that beginning of the film packs in a lot of necessary information in order to understand what’s going on for the rest of the movie. Raya, who appears to be about 16 or 17 for most of the story, explains that Kumandra was a harmonious world, filled with dragons that brought water and rain and peace. But about 500 years ago, the Druun (pronounced “droon”) arrived (it looks like purple mist), and turned most living beings into stone, except for one dragon.

That last dragon is a female named Sisu, pronounced “see-soo” (voiced by Awkwafina), who “concentrated all of her magic in a Dragon Gem and blasted the Druun.” This gem (which looks like a large diamond) is the only known way to fight off the Druun, so it’s become the most valuable object in Kumandra. Because of Sisu’s actions with the Dragon Gem, everyone that was turned to stone came back to life, except for the dragons. Besides the Dragon Gem, the only other way to stop the Druun is to be surrounded by a large body of water.

Sisu then became a mythical hero in Kumandra, with some people believing that Sisu might still be alive. Meanwhile, Sisu’s magical Dragon Gem became highly coveted, and various people in Kumandra began feuding to get possession of the Dragon Gem, which was secretly hidden. Borders were drawn for five different lands, and the tribes in each land have been enemies of each other for the past 500 years.

Raya describes these five lands:

  • Tail, “a sweltering desert of sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.” The Tail tribe wears a lot of yellow.
  • Talon, “a floating market with fast deals and fighters with even faster hands.” The Talon tribe wears a lot of purple.
  • Spine, “a frigid bamboo forest guarded by large warriors and their giant axes.” The Spine tribe wears a lot of green.
  • Fang, “our fiercest enemy, a nation protected by angry assassins and even angrier cats.” The Fang tribe wears a lot of off-white.
  • Heart, the land where Raya and her father Benja live, is the most neutral and prosperous of the five lands. The Heart tribe doesn’t really have a color-coordinated way of dressing.

The story continues with a flashback of when Raya was about 10 or 11 years old. Her widower father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who is the chief of Heart, has been the secret guardian of the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a remote part of a cave. Raya knows this secret, and she passes her father’s physical test to see if she would be able to reach the Dragon Gem if necessary.

Benja has a bold plan to reunite all the feuding tribes of Kumandra. He invites the people of Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang to Heart. And he gives a speech asking everyone to try to get along with each other. His speech is met with a lot of ridicule, until Raya and Benja mention all the free food that’s available at the gathering. Some of the other tribes are scarce on resources, such as food.

Raya makes eye contact in the crowd with a girl from Fang who’s about the same age as she is. They smile at each other, as an indication that they’re open to becoming friends. Raya steps into the crowd and begins talking to the girl. The other girl is Fang’s princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who is the daughter of Fang’s calm and calculating leader Virana (voiced by Sandra Oh).

The other tribes see how Raya and Namaari have started to amicably interact with each other, so they gather in an area that’s set up to look like Kumandra’s version of a family-friendly cocktail party. Raya and Namaari have an instant friendship connection, when they find out that they are both superfans of Sisu. The two girls also found out other things that they have in common are that they both want to be warriors and they both have single parents who tell terrible jokes.

Namaari has a Sisu necklace that Raya admires, and Raya is flattered and surprised when Namaari gives the necklace to Raya. This act of generosity prompts Raya to to impulsively show Namaari the secret location where the Dragon Gem is kept. However, Raya is in for a betrayal and a rude awakening, when Namaari sends a signal to the people in her tribe that she’s found the Dragon Gem.

Other members of the Fang tribe, including Namaari’s mother Virana, rush inside the cave and begin to try to get the gem. Meanwhile, members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes have followed them inside the cave to see what all the fuss is about. And when they all see the Dragon Gem, all hell breaks loose.

Benja and Raya bravely try to prevent the Dragon Gem from being taken, but Raya and Benja are outnumbered. People begin fighting to take possession of the gem, which ends up dropping on the ground and shattering into five pieces. The Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang tribes each take one piece and scatter back to their lands, while a fifth piece is left behind at Heart.

The shattering of the Dragon Gem causes the Druun to come back with a vengeance, so there are many people in all tribes who get turned into stone. One of them is Benja, who valiantly throws Raya off a bridge to save her from being in the Druun’s path. She falls into the water (which is protection from the Druun), and she is able to survive.

The story then fast-forwards to six years later. Raya is now a lonely teenage orphan who’s been wandering through the now-devastated Kumandra, on a quest to find all of the pieces of the Dragon Gem to put them back together. Accompanying Raya on this quest is a creature called Tuk Tuk, which is part pill bug and part pug. Tuk Tuk, which is Raya’s closest companion, has grown considerably since her childhood, from being small enough to fit in the palm of her hand to currently being large enough to transport her like a giant snail.

Raya is grieving over the loss of her father, and she’s consumed with bitterness over how she was betrayed by Namaari. Throughout the movie, it’s repeated how this betrayal has caused Raya to not trust anyone. And she wants to get revenge on Namaari and the Fang tribe the most.

Because being near a large body of water is a form of protection against the Druun, Raya has been seeking out all the rivers in Kumandra. When she gets to the last river, Raya calls out to the spirit of Sisu to help her. Just then, Sisu appears, to Raya’s shock. Sisu then transforms herself into a human, as a teenager with multicolored hair.

Raya is awestruck but she doesn’t lose focus on her mission. She tells Sisu about her plan to find all the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Sisu agrees to help her and mentions that her best magical ability is that she’s a “really strong swimmer.”

And so, Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk go on this adventure that’s fraught with danger but also filled with wonder and hope. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters. One of them is Boun (played by Izaac Wang), pronounced “boon,” a wisecracking 10 year-old boy who’s the captain of his own rickety-looking wooden ship. He calls himself Captain Boun, and he invites Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk to ride on the ship to wherever they need to go.

During this journey they also encounter a giant named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong); Talon’s chief Dang Hai (played by Sung Kang); and Dang Hu (voiced by Lucille Soong), an elderly guide. For the “cute and cuddly factor” that’s a staple of Disney animated movies, there are some innocent-looking characters that commit some not-so-innocent acts: Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) is a toddler with a habit of stealing items (and she steals lots of scenes too), and she hangs out with three Ongis, which are con-artist creatures that are part monkey, part catfish. And, of course, Namaari shows up again and finds out what Raya is planning to do.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” has overtones about world peace without being too preachy about it. It’s also a story about the capacity to forgive and how difficult it can be to overcome grudges when revenge for death, as well as hatred of a certain group of people, have become ingrained in someone’s soul or someone’s culture. A lot of these messages are wrapped up in the vibrant adventure aspect of the story, but these themes are constant throughout the entire film.

The movie has some commentary about hero worship and the dangers of exalting others to a degree that’s not always healthy or realistic. Sisu reveals some secrets about herself that give a different perspective on her mythical hero status. Awkwafina is a personality that people either seem to love or hate, but her raspy-voiced portrayal of Sisu suits the character well, considering that this dragon has lived for centuries.

Sisu is older and wiser than Raya, and offers some advice about forgiveness that Raya thinks is too naïve. This difference of opinion leads to some mild conflicts between Raya and Sisu, but they remain united in their goal to find the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Tran’s portrayal of Raya is relatable and engaging, while Chan also shines in her role as Raya’s enemy Namaari, whose loyalty to her Fang tribe is her greatest motivation and her greatest blind spot.

One of the main themes of Disney princess movies is how girls who seem ordinary can find something extraordinary in themselves during their journeys of self-discovery and while they learn some of life’s biggest lessons. “Raya and the Dragon” falls right in line with this theme. And because this is a Disney animated film, the visuals and the story are top-notch.

Is it a completely perfect movie? No. One of the things that isn’t adequately explained is how Raya and her father Benja seem to be the only people in Heart who are shown in the movie. There’s no real sense of what type of community Raya grew up in and what type of community she would go back to if she returned to Heart. It would have been a little better if the movie showed more of this social context in Heart, instead of making it look like Raya and Benja were the only people who mattered in Heart.

And the way the story is structured, viewers really do need to be paying full attention during the first 10 minutes, or else they’ll miss the informative descriptions of the different lands. (However, for very young kids or people who don’t care about world building, these descriptions won’t matter as much as the adventure story.) Sometimes when a movie has a lot of voice narration in the beginning to explain the plot, it doesn’t work. But fortunately, it works for “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Any of the movie’s minor flaws are far outweighed by this captivating story that is sure to inspire repeat viewings.

Walt Disney Animation Studios released “Raya and the Last Dragon” in U.S. cinemas and for a premium additional price on Disney+ on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Think Like a Dog,’ starring Gabriel Bateman, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox

June 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gabriel Batman in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Think Like a Dog”

Directed by Gil Junger

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Beijing, the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” features a racially diverse cast (mostly white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy who’s an aspiring inventor and his online gaming friend in China secretly find a way to make a device that gives people the ability to hear what a dog is thinking, but government officials want to get ahold of the device, while the boy is dealing with family drama at home, because his parents are on the verge of divorce.

Culture Audience: “Think Like a Dog” will appeal primarily to families with children younger than the age of 10.

Gabriel Batman and Megan Fox in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” is set in the early 21st century, there’s something very 1970s quaint about this “talking dog” movie, which has simplistic and preachy messages that are both endearing and annoying. Adults will know exactly how this formulaic movie is going to end, but very young kids (under the age of 10) could enjoy this ride, since the children in this movie are very relatable.

“Think Like a Dog” (written and directed by Gil Junger) seems like a throwback to the 1970s, when movies about family dogs (such as the “Benji” series and “A Boy and His Dog”) were starting to become very popular. Back in the 1970s, life was less complicated for American children, who didn’t have to deal with school shootings or cyberbullying. It was also a period of time when it was more plausible to have a movie where a boy and his “talking dog” team up for the boy’s plan to keep his parents from divorcing.

The concept of a child being able to save a marriage with the help of a talking dog is a lot for any kid to handle in a movie. But “Think Like a Dog” also throws in another heavy-handed plot of the kid trying to dodge getting in trouble with the government because his invention has interfered with important satellite signals that control the world’s economy. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The child prodigy at the center of the film is 12-year-old Oliver (played by Gabriel Bateman), who lives in an unnamed American city that looks like a pleasantly peaceful suburb. Oliver is a science and computer enthusiast, who keeps pictures on his bedroom wall of Elon Musk and a Mark Zuckerberg-like tech mogul named Ram Mills (played by Kunal Nayyar), also known as Mr. Mills. Oliver is an only child. His parents are Lukas (played by Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (played by Megan Fox), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage.

Lukas (who’s a soccer coach at a local high school) and Ellen (who works in a beauty salon) have grown emotionally distant from each other. Ellen and Lukas have been thinking about separating, but they haven’t told Oliver yet. But, of course, Oliver finds out, when he discovers that Lukas has been offered a coaching job at a college named Springfield University, which is a three-hour drive away from where they live, and Ellen isn’t exactly trying to stop Lukas from taking the job. If Lukas takes the job, it’s a way for him and Ellen to separate, and they plan to “figure it out” from there.

Oliver’s best friend is his mixed Border Collie dog Henry (voiced by Todd Stashwick), who has voiceover narration throughout the entire movie. Most of the “jokes” that Henry tells are the type of jokes that have been heard before in other “talking dog” movies that make the dogs sound like low-rent (but family-friendly) stand-up comedians. Henry shares his platitudes about life by saying that most humans don’t know the secret that dogs know: How to be happy.

Henry’s philosophy is that humans are always looking for ways to improve their lives instead of being content with who they are right now. (That’s easy to say, coming from a pampered house dog whose needs are catered to by humans.) What’s kind of contradictory about this movie’s message is that inventions are usually about improving lives, so Henry’s overly simplistic philosophy doesn’t really work when you consider that Oliver is an aspiring inventor.

Oliver spends a lot of time at home playing online virtual-reality games with a teenager in Beijing named Xiao (played by Neo Hooo, also known as Minghao Hou), who is equally passionate about science and computers as Oliver is. (By the way, this movie has a lot of positive references to China since Chinese-funded M-Star International is one of the production companies behind “Think Like a Dog.”)

Oliver and Xiao have never met in person, but they consider each other to be close online buddies. Oliver has been working on an invention that can read people’s thoughts. And lo and behold, Xiao calls Oliver to tell Oliver that he’s found a massive breakthrough in Oliver’s invention, which can be activated by using a massive processor. And to their delight, they find out that the invention works.

At school, Oliver is a typical nerdy type who is shy around a fellow classmate who is his big crush. Her name is Sophie (played by Madison Horcher), who is the typical nice but slightly aloof girl who seems to be almost perfect in every way. And since this movie is extremely predictable, there’s the school bully Nicholas (played by Billy 4 Johnson), who picks on Oliver; the bully’s spineless follower Brayden (played by Dillon Ahlf); and wisecracking student Li (played by Izaac Wang), who’s too precocious for his own good.

The movie has several contrived situations to make Oliver embarrassed in front of Sophie, who seems to be in pretty much all of the same classes as Oliver. The school is doing the play “Romeo and Juliet,” and in rehearsals, Oliver is embarrassed when he says a monologue and, as a Freudian slip, accidentally substitutes the name Sophie for Juliet.

Oliver is also embarrassed when he sees Sophie and her adorable female dog (a poodle mix) at a dog park, and he gets tongue-tied when trying to start a conversation with Sophie. The school bully Nicholas naturally has a big alpha male dog (a greyhound), which the movie portrays as being so popular with the opposite sex that the dog has female dog groupies. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

But Oliver’s biggest humiliation happens when Mr. Mills comes to town to give a guest lecture at the Young Inventors Expo. At the event, Oliver gives a demonstration of his invention that has the telepathic powers. Someone wears a tech headband that reads the brain, and that person’s thoughts show up on a computer that has a wireless connection to the headband. Oliver asks for a volunteer from the audience, and he foolishly chooses Brayden, who’s a known friend of school bully Nicholas.

Oliver asks Brayden to think of a color, and that color will be named by the computer. The computer results show that Brayden was thinking of the color blue, but Brayden says he was thinking of the color green. Nicholas then stands up in the audience, as people do in movies like this, to make a taunting remark and lead a chorus of laughter at how Oliver’s invention is stupid and doesn’t work. All of this happens in front of Oliver’s idol Mr. Mills.

A crushed Oliver goes home, and his life gets worse when he finds out that his parents are headed toward a separation. What’s a boy whose life is falling apart to do? He goes in his room and finds comfort with his best friend/dog, while viewers of this movie have to watch Henry in voiceover acting like a know-it-all therapist.

It’s just around this time that some satellite gobbledygook happens in the universe, which suddenly allows Oliver to hear Henry’s thoughts through the invention. (Henry ends up wearing a magical telepathic collar, so Oliver can hear Henry’s thoughts through this portable, wireless collar device.) Oliver is elated that he can now hear his best friend talk, but he also knows that if he tells people about it, they’ll think he’s crazy.

Henry is able to communicate these thoughts with Oliver telepathically: “When humans grow up, they start to focus on other things and forget about what matters. What are the two most important things in life? Love and family. We [dogs] don’t complicate things like humans.”

And so, Henry and Oliver hatch a plan to fix Lukas and Ellen’s shaky marriage: “We need to teach Mom and Dad to think like a dog,” Henry says, as if he’s Marriage Counselor of the Year. The “plan” is to remind Lukas and Ellen of their wedding day, by getting them to hear their first wedding dance song at Oliver’s school dance. The idea is that the song will trigger memories of happier times, and then Lukas and Ellen can fall in love again, and everyone can live happily ever after.

Of course, there has to a big dramatic scheme to get Ellen and Lukas in the same room to hear this song. And somehow, Oliver’s school dance is the only place that Ellen and Lukas can hear this song, as opposed to anywhere else where Oliver could easily play the song to his parents. And somehow, Henry is the only living being who can get Lukas and Ellen in the same room at Oliver’s school dance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Meanwhile, Oliver’s invention has messed with the outer-space satellite coordinates that control the world’s banks. And this satellite interference could cause total chaos in the world’s economy. Oliver’s telepathic invention literally ends up on the U.S. government’s radar at a place called the Global Cyber Protection Agency, which can pick up the dog Henry’s thoughts, which are misinterpreted as terrorist thoughts.

Why? Because when Henry thinks about urinating on the lawn of a white house in the neighborhood, the agency thinks it’s the U.S. president’s White House. Therefore, the agency thinks a terrorist is behind the mysterious interference in satellite coordinates. And so, two agents—Agent Munoz (played by Julia Jones) and Agent Callen (played by Bryan Callen)—are dispatched to find this dangerous terrorist, or else the world’s safety could be at stake.

Meanwhile, Oliver gets a big surprise when he’s visited at school by Mr. Mills’ efficient assistant Bridget (played by Janet Montgomery), who meets Oliver outside the school to show him a hologram message from Mr. Mills. In the message, Mr. Mills says he was so impressed with the idea of Oliver’s invention that he has invited Oliver to be his guest at the Tech Summit in China. Oliver says he can’t go to the summit, but he tells Mr. Mills about his friend Xiao, whom Oliver credits with being a big help with the invention.

And so, Xiao becomes Mr. Mills’ guest at the summit, which takes place in Beijing. The event is so over-the-top in treating Mr. Mills like a “god” that a giant projection of his face appears on the steps of the convention center where the event is held. Of course, there’s a plot twist with Mr. Mills, which is revealed in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be discussed in this review, since we all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Will Oliver win Sophie’s heart? Will Henry help save the day? Will Lukas and Ellen fall back in love again? Do people need a dog’s brain to know the answers to these questions?

“Think Like a Dog” would have been a better movie if it weren’t so unimaginative and if it weren’t so preachy. The jokes in the movie just aren’t very funny. (There’s an over-reliance on jokes about farting, dog poop and the canine habit of dogs smelling each other’s rear ends.) There’s a lot of the movie that’s been seen and done before in other films about talking dogs or nerdy boys who are social misfits at school.

Some of the cast members stand out as being better actors than others in this movie. Bateman (as Oliver) carries the film with winning charm. Fox (as Oliver’s mother Ellen) is also quite good, and she does her best to act believable in a bland movie. Wang (as the smart-alecky Li) is a scene-stealer, just as he was in the much-raunchier 2019 comedy film “Good Boys.”

But ultimately, these slightly-above-average performances are not enough to save “Think Like a Dog” from too-corny mediocrity. The ways that problems are resolved in “Think Like a Dog” are such moldy concepts from a bygone era, that it’s the equivalent of a dog with mange that needs a good scrub-down bath of today’s reality.

Lionsgate released “Think Like a Dog” on DVD, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 9, 2020.

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