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Jack Whitehall in Clifford the Big Red Dog.Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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Clifford the Big Red Dog

Directed by Walt Becker

Written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway, based on the books by Norman Bridwell

Starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall and Tony Hale

Classification PG; 97 minutes

Opens in theatres Nov. 10

Critic’s Pick

Here’s the biggest surprise of the season: Clifford the Big Red Dog is … good?

When the trailer for the big-screen adaptation of Norman Bridwell’s series of children’s books debuted in June, my first thought was: is this an unintentional horror movie? The CGI-constructed Clifford simply seemed too big, too red, for the human mind to process.

It didn’t help when, months later, the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere (already a seemingly odd choice) was scrapped, thanks to U.S. distributor Paramount shifting the film’s September release date to TBD. The studio said the move was due to audience concerns over the Delta variant, but you couldn’t help but wonder whether Hollywood knew it had a dog of a different breed on its hands.

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Izaac Wang, Darby Camp and Jack Whitehall in Clifford the Big Red Dog.Courtesy Paramount of Pictures

Well, I guess I’ll have to roll over and play dead now because this gigantic pup tale is actually one hell of a weird, captivating cinematic trick. After being placed back on the theatrical calendar – it’s getting a simultaneous U.S.-only streaming release on Paramount+ – Clifford the Big Red Dog arrives this weekend as something of a gigantic delight. Don’t get your hopes Pixar-high: this is a mid-budget kid’s flick through and through, and only exists because producers are smelling easy money like so many dogs sniffing each other’s butts. Yet the filmmakers have leapt over franchise concerns to somehow deliver a movie that engages kids and entertainingly puzzles adults.

A canine version of Penny Marshall’s Big, Clifford focuses on lonely grade-schooler Emily (Darby Camp), who wishes that her newfound red-coloured pet would grow large enough to protect her from bullies. Wouldn’t you know, the next morning Emily and her babysitter uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall) awaken to find that Clifford is the size of a sedan. Or maybe an elephant. The exact nature of his form fluctuates wildly within the whims of the film’s magnificently, impressively bad CGI.

The mechanics of the story – girl meets dog, girl tries to save dog from evil scientist (Tony Hale) – are simple. The obligatory lessons about responsibility, family and courage are honestly delivered. And the relationship between Emily and her supersized BFF is genuinely wrought. It should all land nicely with the under-10 set. But director Walt Becker and his trio of screenwriters fill their film’s margins with some truly weird and breezily entertaining elements, too.

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Kenan Thompson in Clifford the Big Red Dog.KC Bailey/Courtesy Paramount of Pictures

There are Saturday Night Live veterans (Kenan Thompson, Alex Moffat, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, the recently scandalized Horatio Sanz) elevating the sitcom-y shtick expected of them. There’s British actor Whitehall forced to use an American accent as Casey, even though his on-screen sister (Sienna Guillory) is an explicitly British character. There’s Broadway icon Tovah Feldshuh seducing a genetically engineered goat with a can of condensed milk. There’s a plot point that pivots on the supreme generosity of a Shanghai shipping magnate.

And then there is the pure visual madness that is Clifford’s Manhattan, a city in which every apartment’s ceiling is at least 20 feet high and every law of physics is ready to be defied by one very large pet’s presence. Never for a second do you believe that Clifford is a real thing occupying the same space and time as the human characters. Indeed, by the end, there’s a nagging feeling that Becker is toying with the concept that the dog might just be a figment: a mass hallucination on the part of the collective New York consciousness.

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John Cleese and Jack Whitehall in Clifford the Big Red Dog.K.C. Bailey/Courtesy Paramount of Pictures

I haven’t even gotten around to dissecting John Cleese’s performance, in which he plays a magical spin on Bridwell himself. Nor the presence of Russell Peters and, for a split second, Rosie Perez. But that’s only because I simply don’t have a thousand more words to expound on the subject.

Clifford the Big Red Dog is much more than I was anticipating, but more importantly, something blessedly different from the dozens of other safe and dull children’s fare clogging up the market as of late. Good boy, Clifford. Good boy.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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