This week, the towering canine known by generations of toddlers hits the big screen in Clifford The Big Red Dog, a live-action family movie with visual effects that bring the titular puppy to life. It’s out in theaters, and also on Paramount+, which has a 7-day-trial that may appeal to some families.
Sure, it looks cute—but does it work for kids 7 and under without being grating on guardians? Mercifully, it comes from producer Jordan Kerner (2006’s Charlotte’s Web) and director Walt Becker, with a track record of all-ages films that stand the test of time.
“Walt and I really set out to make a movie that is purely a family movie, one that a small child, 30-year-old parents, and grandparents will love,” said Kerner. “The physical humor of it is very appealing to young kids, but the overall themes are sophisticated and deal with real issues.”
Having seen the film with my own two little ones, I can recommend it as lighthearted fun with two caveats—some toilet humor related to the dog relieving himself, and one misuse of God’s name (thankfully, young ears could easily miss it).
Speaking in a video interview, the producer and director discuss their family flick’s moral themes, its focus on comedy and honoring Clifford’s legacy … plus give a peek behind-the-scenes at filmmaking magic. It has been lightly edited for space; questions in bold.
This movie feels like a throwback to Stuart Little, which played out in a bright and adventurous version of New York City. But it's also not so kiddie that Clifford talks in it. What was the thinking behind those decisions?
Kerner: Similar to past movies I’ve done like The Mighty Ducks and Charlotte's Web, certain themes underlie the stories.
In Clifford, we have a red, 10-feet-tall dog that half of the world looks at as so cute. And there's another half of the world that looks at him as, “Oh my gosh, he's bigger than a horse, there's something wrong with him.” They think he's a genetic aberrant, because no dog is red like that.
This community learns to have more open hearts and minds, to see the things that unite us rather than what divides. Then all of us can both give and experience unconditional love, which is the film’s big, central theme.
As this was filmed on location in NYC, the two kids have a lot of scenes with Clifford. How did you help them interact with a character who wasn't there?
Becker: Early on, we realized that all the actors — not only the kids — were going to need to have some frame of reference. I had watched this War Horse play in New York City, and the puppeteering of that horse on stage was just insane. And I thought, Let's try to do that with a dog. We hired two talented puppeteers and a company that built this massive dog puppet.
They could articulate the mouth, turn the head and tail. It was so dog-like that you felt like Clifford was in the room. It helped all of our actors a lot, to believe a 10-foot-tall dog was actually there. The kids got used to it. And I think even dogs, when we were out in the street, seemed to think that big puppet was a dog at times. He got sniffed every once in a while.
In a family comedy like this, to what degree do you have the actors improv their lines?
Becker: We always try to get what's on the page, because we spend a lot of time perfecting that script. Then, once we get that, I'm a big fan of making space for actors to ad-lib all day. It’s why I try to fill my movies with a lot of great comic actors. Growing up, I laughed a lot at John Cleese, who’s a comedy legend, and today, Jack Whitehall is such a huge talent.
Everywhere you look in this film, we populate this whole world with great comic talent who elevate the material. Kenan Thompson, who most people know from SNL or recent films, Jordan had first worked with him back in 1994 on D2: The Mighty Ducks.
Jordan: At nine years old, Kenan debuted as Russ Tyler, who had the "knuckle puck" move on that kids’ hockey team. Even at that age, he could improvise lines in the funniest of ways—and he does it in Clifford, as you'll see. Walt empowered this cast to be themselves, to take their characters and have fun with it.
His approach aligns with what has worked in past family movies I’ve produced. Watching Tim Curry ad-lib in The Three Musketeers, he’s a very funny person. And sometimes you have to push a dramatic actor to do a ridiculous scene. In Charlotte's Web, Robert Redford had to be a horse scared of spiders. And I said to him, “You're going to have to break into a falsetto. This is going to be your first comic movie.”
While this film changes some of the backstory that families may be familiar with, are there references to the original stories?
Kerner: We worked very hard to reference those classic stories in subtle ways. Norman Bridwell, the author and artist, did many interviews during his lifetime. What you find is a person full of kindness and humor. That's why we created the character of Mr. Bridwell, played by John Cleese, whose "magic" is really the unconditional love he gives others.
As an example, in the books, T-Bone is a close neighborhood friend of Clifford. The movie has a scene around a dining room table where Clifford's getting his first meal of 100 hamburgers. Their new friend Owen has a bulldog pup, chowing down on a steak. In a quiet moment, Jack Whitehall, who plays Uncle Casey, calls him T-Bone. It’s a nod to the legacy we’re building on.
Rated PG for some impolite humor and mild action, “Clifford The Big Red Dog” is now in theaters and streaming via Paramount+.
UPDATE: After the film earned $22.2M in a five-day theatrical opening, Paramount is now planning a sequel.
Image: Paramount Pictures
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.