Sr. Nancy Usselman, FSP, reviews a new adaptation of a children’s story that teaches life lessons with a touch of fun and adventure mixed in.
Dogs are the number one domestic animal in the world. It’s no wonder since they are called “man’s best friend” for a reason. They are lovable, loyal, and entertaining. They also keep human beings responsible and attentive to someone and something outside of themselves. This delightful children’s story teaches children these invaluable life lessons with a touch of fun and adventure mixed in. Directed by Walt Becker, Clifford the Big Red Dog centers on a middle-school girl named Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) who has always longed for a pet. Her mother (Sienna Guillory) is a single parent trying to make ends meet. She has to go away for a business trip, so she brings in her impulsive and generally irresponsible younger brother Casey (Jack Whitehall) to watch her daughter while she is away for a few days. It’s always when the parents are away that the antics ensue.
As Uncle Casey and Emily walk to school, they pass by an area of the park where a circus-like animal rescue tent is installed. Emily goes in, to which Casey follows, looking at all the exotic creatures the magical and mysterious Animal Whisperer Mr. Bridwell (John Cleese) has collected. When they enter the tent, the inside becomes bigger and more expansive than the outside. Among all the amazing creatures, Emily comes upon a small bright red puppy. He’s irresistible to her. Uncle Casey insists on being the responsible adult and doesn’t want to let his sister down, so he tells Emily she cannot have the dog even though the mysterious owner offers the puppy to Emily.
After coming home from school, Emily notices movement in her backpack. The little red puppy appears to her delight. Because of Emily’s love, Clifford grows in size to the point of being a giant red dog in the small apartment. When Uncle Casey discovers Clifford, he nervously tries to figure out a plan to remove the dog stealthily from the building before the landlord, who dislikes dogs, discovers Clifford’s presence.
In the meantime, Zach, a scientist (Tony Hale) from Lifegro, a genetics company that manipulates animals for scientific study, hears about Clifford and is determined to snatch him to be part of his questionable experimental laboratory. This is when the adventure really takes off. Imagine a giant red dog bounding through the streets of New York City. It is a delightfully entertaining film that showcases the best-loved scenes of the Big Apple.
Though Uncle Casey’s character sloughs off most of the time, he also learns responsibility for his niece while she learns to stand up to the bullies at school and makes decisions that save the life of Clifford from the evil designs of Lifegro. Though at one point, they both lie to her mother on the phone, the filmmakers never address the consequences of lying to one’s parent. When the mother returns, though she is surprised at what is happening, she responds to her daughter as if everything is just fine. Parents can’t let those seemingly little moral issues pass them by. Kids need their parents to help them understand why truth-telling is so important to relationships. We fear getting into trouble, so we lie. But, as one of the Commandments of God, telling falsehoods has consequences and unfortunately the film skips over that.
However, it does show kids taking responsibility for themselves, other people, and God’s creatures as an important life lesson. This story, through its antics and lovable characters, presents the gift that is each person and all of creation, not to be manipulated by science, but to be supported and respected.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is a simple story, but one that can lead adults to talk to children about truth, courage, and standing up for what one believes — a noble purpose.
Copyright 2021 Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP
Images: copyright 2021 Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP is a Daughter of St Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, CA. She is a Media Literacy Education Specialist, theologian, international speaker, film reviewer, and blogger for BeMediaMindful.org. Her book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is a theology of popular culture published by Wipf & Stock Publishing.