The Big Dog Hits The Big Screen

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2004

CONSIDERING each half-hour installment of the animated PBS series "Clifford the Big Red Dog" (and its spinoff, "Clifford's Puppy Days") contains not one but two self-contained stories, the 11/4-hour running time of "Clifford's Really Big Movie" is an example of what you might call extreme truth in advertising. Nevertheless, in the opinion of the two 4-year-old experts who accompanied me to a recent midmorning screening of the gently entertaining tale, the film was neither too long nor too short, but, as they say in the fairy tale biz, "just right."

I would have to agree with that assessment.

Unlike, say, "Arthur" -- another PBS favorite in my household that details the adventures of an elementary-school-age aardvark, one of whose friends is the product of a broken home -- there's never been anything remotely edgy about "Clifford" or its titular protagonist, a genial house-size pooch voiced by the late, sorely missed John Ritter.

Oh, there might be a message about tolerance of otherness from time to time, in an episode about, for instance, a three-legged dog, but otherwise the series pretty much avoids topicality. As Clifford, Ritter brought a kind of archaic goodness -- a fundamental humanity, if you'll pardon the incongruity when talking about a dog -- to the role of TV's Clifford, whose function in the small town of Birdwell Island was as a sort of wise if occasionally misguided peacemaker.

Although selfishness or otherwise inconsiderate behavior would sometimes rear their ugly heads, you could always count on the ever-diplomatic dog to smooth over tension involving the other animals, children and adults of the island in the end, even if his path to resolution sometimes involved a detour.

Similarly, it is Clifford's kind, old-fashioned heart that leads him astray in "Really Big Movie." Overhearing comments one day about how expensive it must be to feed him, Clifford, accompanied by canine pals T-Bone (Kel Mitchell) and Cleo (Cree Summer), runs off to the mainland to enter an animal talent contest whose prize is a lifetime supply of Tummy Yummy dog treats. While this obviously entails leaving his owner, Emily Elizabeth (Grey DeLisle), behind, her distress is never depicted as particularly profound or traumatic, a good thing for young audiences. What's more, Clifford fully intends to return as soon as he has won the loot. That prospect looks pretty good, too, after our hero takes up with the performing menagerie of a traveling carnival (Wilmer Valderrama as a weight-lifting Chihuahua, Jenna Elfman as a tightrope-walking cow, Wayne Brady as a juggling ferret and Jess Harnell as a skate-punk dachshund).

Although there's never any serious doubt as to whether Clifford and company will win, the film's subliminal message is less about winning than the importance of teamwork over ego. Shackelford the ferret, you see, was once the star of the circus, and he begins to resent Clifford's -- how shall I put this? -- oversize role in the revamped act. By the closing credits, however, lessons will have been learned, and all will have been put right with the world.

As it should be.

A final note: The applause I hear at the end of some kiddie promotional screenings often feels like it is as much, if not more so, an expression of parental gratitude about getting into a movie for free as it is a measure of the film's quality. When clapping broke out close to the end of "Clifford's Really Big Movie" -- the clapping of little hands, I might add, and not big ones -- it felt as spontaneous and as heartfelt an expression of youthful joy as I have heard in a long time.

CLIFFORD'S REALLY BIG MOVIE (G, 75 minutes) -- Contains mild jeopardy only rarely exceeding the level of a lost balloon. Area theaters.

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