A new Clifford the Big Red Dog movie is on the way, which will mark the first time the storybook pet has been seen in a live-action production. While the character’s official look was revealed a while back, the recent trailer shed some light on the humorous situations the dog is going to get into. From the look of things, the enormous canine is just as curious and playful as fans have known him to be. But there may be one question that some viewers have about his character: will he ever speak during the course of the movie?
There’s a firm chance that, like myself, you grew up watching the animated Clifford the Big Red Dog series that aired on PBS during the early 2000s. On that show (and the more recent reboot), Clifford did talk, albeit to his fellow dogs. So when I recently spoke to director Walt Becker and producer Jordan Kerner about the live-action film, I couldn’t help but ask if Clifford has a voice. Ultimately, Kerner confirmed that the titular character does not actually speak in the film and explained why he, Becker and their team decided to move in that direction:
There are a lot of talking dog movies, right? And Walt [Becker, director], I'm going to blow some air right now. It was just a joy to work with Walt, and Walt always had the perception that Clifford needed to be real. And so, like in the book, where you had a line drawing and a red dog that you could imagine and take into your heart, the standard sitting in the theater with something that's live is it has to feel alive at all times. The moment you start speaking in English, or in French, or in German, or in Portuguese, whatever, he's not real anymore. He's a character in an animated movie. And that's not what we set out to make. And again, that's sort of, you know, [original author] Norman Bridwell sitting on our shoulders, saying, ‘Don't screw this up and do it the right way.’ It was trying to make it real. So no, he doesn't speak… he doesn't have any gross sort of silly comic reactions.
So for Jordan Kerner, Walt Becker and their collaborators, it was about making sure that Clifford remained a real dog, in spite of his unusual appearance. It’s easy to understand the reasoning behind the decision, especially when you consider just how many talking dog movies we’ve seen over the years (no offense Scooby-Doo). Nevertheless, Kerner went on to say that audiences will know what the character is thinking through “very subtle” gestures:
Absolutely, you're gonna understand what he's thinking. And it was really Walt being so specific and technical with the puppeteers and ultimately, the visual effects and the actors reacting to him. That was the guide for all of us.
When giving his own thoughts on the creative choice, Walt Becker used his own dog as an example. The director spoke on how he can tell when his dog needs something or when he’s done something wrong. He also explained his approach to Clifford’s characterization, even noting the similarities between this iteration of the character and the equally lovable E.T.:
[Former Clifford voice actor] John Ritter is one of my favorite actors of all time. So that's... I think if this was a fully animated project, for sure, he'd be talking, I mean, there'd be no thing. But as soon as it became a live-action world, and the question was… I've always sort of seen the story as E.T., where this sort of magical creature comes in the life of a young protagonist. And they do communicate, but it's very subtle, you get what they're feeling… We always use the word a dog plus 30%. … So I think we have this inherent ability to communicate with our dogs anyway. And so we said that the real magic would be to have a real dog but just heightened enough where he's special. So that was the decision to sort of keep him from talking.
The creatives behind Clifford the Big Red Dog seem to have put a lot of thought into how they wanted to portray the character on screen. This also extended to his physical appearance, which took quite a bit of time to nail down due to Clifford’s natural color. So while some may be some may have been expecting Clifford to talk this time around, they can still rest easy knowing they’ll still be able to connect with the beloved canine.
Clifford the Big Red Dog opens in theaters on September 17th.