'Clifford's Really Big Movie': Fetching Children's Fare

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2004

"That's not Clifford!"

"Where's the bow-wow?"

"When are we going to Chuck E. Cheese?"

Judging from the chatter of the filmgoers at a recent screening, these are just a few of the existential questions posed by "Clifford's Really Big Movie," Robert Ramirez's adaptation of the hit PBS animated series, in which Clifford seeks to avenge his near-murder at the hands of the man he once worked for as an international assassin. . . . Whoops, wait, wrong movie.

Here we go. "Clifford the Big Red Dog": cute show, cult following, but not the scary kind. "Clifford's Really Big Movie": a slightly distended version of the television program, here voiced by some of the best actors in the animation business, including the late, great John Ritter in the title role. Clifford, true to advertising, is indeed an enormous red canine, and lives on Birdwell Island with his beloved owner, Emily Elizabeth, and his pals, a chic poodle named Cleo and a scrappy mutt named T-Bone. It's a blissful existence -- full of bucolic romps, truckloads of kibble and big, slobbery kisses -- which is interrupted, as most ideal lives are, by carnies. The traveling show in question goes by the name of Larry and his Amazing Animals, an outfit that includes an acrobatic ferret, an iron-pumping Chihuahua, a skateboarding dachshund and a cow with a high-wire act.

Intrigued by the gypsy life, Clifford joins the group -- just temporarily, until he can help it win a local talent contest, as well as a lifetime supply of his beloved Tummy Yummies. But unbeknown to the goodhearted pup, evil forces are afoot, and soon he is entangled in a very unpleasant dognapping scheme.

That last bit seemed to briefly unsettle the youngest viewers at the preview, at least those who by that time weren't using the theater's railings as a set of improvised monkey bars. "Clifford's Really Big Movie" is perfectly suitable fare for youngsters of any age, but its 73-minute running time might make it most appropriate for 7-and-over attention spans.

The movie's sweet, gentle nature may lack the subtle irony of the "Toy Storys" and "Shreks" of the world, but parents won't be bored, thanks especially to the great voiceover work of Ritter and such colleagues as Jenna Elfman (who plays Dorothy the cow), Kel Mitchell (T-Bone) and John Goodman (the bad guy). The theatrical release of "Clifford's Really Big Movie," like those of most animated features, here serves less as a Saturday afternoon diversion than as an advertisement for the video and DVD, which many families will no doubt wind up owning. Think of it as 73 extra uninterrupted minutes for those days when that's exactly what Mommy and Daddy need.

Clifford's Really Big Movie (73 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

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