Clifford. Orion Pictures 1994.

(no, not that one)

Before watching the movie:

This is another random find I don’t have much background on. It looks very much like something nobody cares about beyond squeezing some extra residuals out, and it appears that it was considered a disaster. Which I can kind of see. What caught my attention was “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. What makes me wonder who came up with it and thought it was worth filming is “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. I suspect the concept grew out of a bit that Short was already trying to find a home for.

Also Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen are probably good choices for the types they seem to be playing, but even for the early 90s (this got shelved for a few years because Orion couldn’t afford to distribute it) I’m not really sure “Martin Short, Charles Grodin, and Mary Steenburgen” are the extremely marketable combination you want to attract audiences with.

Before watching the movie:

Clifford, a precocious little boy obsessed with dinosaurs, while accompanying his parents on his father’s business trip to Hawaii, forces an emergency landing in LA so he can have an opportunity to go to Dinosaur World. As Clifford is now banned from flying, he proposes that his parents continue to Hawaii while he stays with his uncle Martin, who can take him to Dinosaur World. The call is perfectly timed for Martin, who is desperate to prove to his fiancee Sarah, a childcare worker at his company’s day care facility, that he likes kids and wants to raise children with her. Martin promises Clifford he’ll take him to Dinosaur World first thing in the morning. Only, it turns out he has to go meet with his boss first. And his boss tells him there’s been a complication with his master plan for redesigning the LA metro train system and he’ll have to completely rework it by the presentation in two days. Angry with Martin for breaking his promise, Clifford perpetrates a series of pranks on him meant to humiliate him, with no sense of appropriate scale. Of course, Clifford is too savvy to let anyone but Martin know he’s being anything but a sweet little angel.

Letting the middle-aged comedian play a young child is not all that weird. But framing it with the comedian playing the same character 60 years later, telling the story to a kid in danger of going down the same path is definitely very odd. The scale and pacing of the pranks is a little odd. But this is a pretty serviceable movie about a little boy who happens to be Martin Short ruining a grown man’s life for petty reasons.

After an entire movie of buildup, we do get to see some of Dinosaur World in the climax, and it is in fact the stuff of a little kid’s dreams. I would love to ride the ride that we get to see, even though, or maybe partly because, it makes no sense as an amusement park ride. It’s like a hybrid of a few different kinds of ride, and the controls are entirely Hollywood.

The conclusion is a bit baffling. It comes off like they ran out of time to write a resolution or something. Thinking over it, maybe it’s supposed to be structured less like the holy Three-Act Plot and more like a parable? Lessons are learned, but the expression of those lessons are told to us, not shown. The problem with the parable interpretation is that while it’s framed as the story of Clifford learning a lesson, the movie is absolutely Martin’s story, so I’m more interested in what happens to Martin. It’s very hard to see a path from where the main plot ends to the happy ending epilogue. I’m reminded of “Sherlock” refusing to explain how Sherlock faked his very public skyscraper fall, or the sitcom “Sledge Hammer” coming back from ending what they thought was going to be their only season by nuking the city with a brief note that the entire second season takes place five years before that happened, but both of those at least put a point on evading the question of how they got out of the corner they wrote their way into. In contrast, this just smacks of “well, that’s about 90 minutes of gags. Let’s just hurry up and put a bow on it.”

There’s weird and there’s unsatisfying. This is a pretty fun, if odd, movie right up until it stops. Everyone fills out their parts well, the weirdness is charming, the farce carries you along, and then it’s suddenly done, and that’s disappointing. It’s also disappointing that the theme park ride isn’t real. I’m sure an Imagineering team could make 90% of it work.

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