[Screen It]

(2004) (voices of John Ritter, Wayne Brady) (G)

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Children's Animated: A gigantic pet dog runs away from home and joins a carnival in hopes of winning a lifetime supply of dog food so that he no longer eats his human owners out of their house and home.
Things are good on Birdwell Island where canines Clifford (voice of JOHN RITTER), Cleo (voice of CREE SUMMER) and T-Bone (voice of KEL MITCHELL) are best friends. Neither the latter two nor Clifford's young human owner, Emily Elizabeth Howard (voice of GREY DELISLE), seem to care or mind that he's a gigantic pooch, nearly as big as a house.

When the local carnival comes into town, the three dogs eagerly await Larry's Amazing Animals Show. Run by Larry Gable Gobble (voice of JUDGE REINHOLD), the act consists of Shackelford (voice of WAYNE BRADY) the trapeze flying ferret and Dorothy (voice of JENNA ELFMAN) the high wire cow who performs despite a fear of heights. Then there's Dirk (voice of JESS HARNELL) the laidback but daring dachshund who performs on rocket-powered skates and Rodrigo (voice of WILMER VALDERRAMA), the weightlifting Chihuahua.

Despite the show not really being that good, Clifford and his friends are impressed. Yet, Larry faces his act being shut down if something doesn't change. However, when Shackelford learns of an animal talent contest sponsored by the maker of the popular pet food Tummy Yummies, George Wolfsbottom (voice of JOHN GOODMAN), things begin to look up. That's especially true when he glances up - way up - to Clifford and realize the gigantic pooch is what they need to win.

Clifford isn't interested, however, until he overhears a human neighbor telling Emily's parents that the big pooch must be eating them out of house and home. Sad over learning that but determined to make things right, Clifford runs away from home and joins the carnival, hoping to help win the contest and the prize of a lifetime supply of Tummy Yummies.

As the newly expanded animal act rehearses their show, they must deal with various setbacks -- including Shackelford becoming jealous of Clifford unwittingly taking the spotlight away from him, as well as Wolfsbottom's spoiled daughter, Madison (voice of KATH SOUCIE), wanting Clifford all for herself -- that threaten to derail Clifford's plans.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
"Okay," when used in adjective form, is defined as not bad, decent or all right. In a world where underachievers far exceed overachievers, efforts that are deemed "okay" are often viewed as acceptable. The notion of "be all you can be" and giving it your all" seem to be products of a bygone era, although the results of such efforts do occasionally spring up and surprise all of us.

Such matters come up in "Clifford's Really Big Movie," the big screen adaptation of the popular children's books and TV show. In it, a talking ferret complains that "okay is not enough" in regards to the animal act in which he performs.

Considering the rest of the feature film that surrounds the comment, some viewers may argue the same about all of it. That's because while the innocuous film is "okay" entertainment for its stated target audience of those seven and under, it's no great piece of storytelling or filmmaking.

The question is whether it needs to be. After all, not many kindergarteners are noted for their artistic tastes. I know, your child is different, but I'm talking about the rest. I'm also sure there are many parents who'd rather exchange clever and sophisticated cinematic fare for that which they hope will be safe and reliable. And since the film isn't aimed at anyone over the target age, does it really matter?

Sure it does. Imagine if Dr. Seuss was as bland as most Saturday morning cartoon offerings or the literary works of E.B. White and C.S. Lewis were along the lines of Pokémon. Yes, there needs to be reliable and innocuous entertainment for young kids, but I argue that such offerings can be simultaneously smart, clever, witty, imaginative and more.

None of which can be used to describe this movie about a great big dog and his experience of running away to join the carnival. Of course, as I'm obviously biased and clearly not remotely in the desired viewer demographic, I'm not the best judge.

My litmus test for such matters is in how kids respond to such offerings. If the tykes at our advance screening are any indication, the film failed to meet their attention needs. While it may have just been an anomaly within our crowd, the boys and girls were chatting, running about and generally acting like wild banshees as the movie played.

Of course, that's how many kids at that age behave. Yet, when presented with the right material - as was the case recently with "Finding Nemo" and way back with the old Disney classics - kids will sit with a rapt fix on the screen, transfixed by the characters, story and more.

Unfortunately, writer/director Robert Ramirez ("Joseph: King of Dreams," "The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars") and co-writer Rhett Reese (who did some work on 'Monsters, Inc." and "Dinosaur") don't manage to capture any semblance of that sort of cinematic magic. The purposefully simple story is devoid of that precious commodity, although I suppose diehard fans of the pooch and his canine companions may nevertheless enjoy it.

The vocal work from the likes of the late John Ritter ("Bad Santa," "Tadpole"), as well as Wayne Brady ("TV's "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and "The Wayne Brady Show"), Jenna Elfman ("Keeping the Faith," "EdTV"), John Goodman ("Monsters, Inc." "O Brother Where Art Thou?") and Judge Reinhold ("The Santa Clause 2," "Ruthless People") is all fine, but unremarkable. The quality of the mostly hand-drawn animation, however, leaves quite a bit to be desired as it has the look and feel of most substandard TV offerings.

I'm sure there will be kids who love every minute of this film and parents who will be pleased about the absence of any sort of "adult" humor. For the rest of us, however, this is just an okay but otherwise flat and mundane offering that feels much longer than its 70-some minute runtime. "Clifford's Really Big Movie" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 14, 2004 / Posted April 23, 2004

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