Clifford (1994) — Adult man plays creepy, sociopathic boy with a dinosaur fixation

“I believe that Dinosaur World is the only place where a boy like me can be happy.”

Justin’s rating: Hey, look at that. I’ve stocked up on nightmare fuel for the next two months.

Justin’s review: I am genuinely worried that we’ve put so much time between us and the 1990s that people — especially younger hu-mans — won’t know or remember how flat-out bonkers that decade was with its comedy movies. Directors and writers often went off the deep end without a second’s hesitation, and we just took that as movie-making as usual for a while. But now, looking back, it’s like this bizarre sideshow of freakish delights.

Compared to outright zany movies like Billy Madison, Cabin Boy, Major Payne, and Nothing But Trouble were, modern cinema is quite milquetoast. But perhaps no ’90s comedy can win the gold medal of weirdness from 1994’s Clifford.

At a very, very casual glance, you’d be puzzled as to why this would be anything other than a somewhat forgettable family-friendly fare. Then you notice that the 10-year-old “kid” here is being played by a 37-year-old Martin Short in a little bow tie. And Charles Grodin, bless his soul, wants to strangle him. That’s a clue that not all is normal in Normalville.

Oh no, this movie is pure bonkers from start to finish. We begin in — why not — 2050 where Clifford is a priest recalling his days of youth to one of the kids he oversees (the movie was filmed in 1990 but held off for release, so Short came back to film bookend scenes in 1993).

So we go in a very extended flashback where Clifford-as-10 ends up staying with his uncle and aunt and badgering them to take him to an amusement park called Dinosaur World. If you can get past the ever-present creepiness of an adult man acting like a little boy, then there’s no way you’re going to overlook Martin Short playing said boy like the most annoying brat ever. Everyone hates him because he’s a psychopath and self-centered in the extreme. I mean, he STARTS the movie by nearly crashing an airliner as a way to make the pilot land closer to Dinosaur World, and he does so with a demonic grin. That’s our main character, boys and girls.

Therefore, it would take a saint to handle Clifford away from the authority structure of his parents. Saint? We don’t got one of those. No, we have Charles Grodin as Uncle Martin, and Charles Grodin’s forte is never portraying patience to fools. He’s like a human pressure cooker whose blood pressure rises with each passing minute in Clifford’s presence, and by the end one or both will end up dead. I always thought Grodin was amazing at acting exasperated, and it’s darkly hilarious to watch him breathe murder against this creepy man-child. You won’t blame him if he went through with it, either.

Martin’s trying to prove to his girlfriend Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) that he’s future dad material, which is why he puts up with this pint-sized lunatic as long as he does. But Clifford is going to put him through seven special kinds of hell when his uncle succumbs to a work emergency and doesn’t follow through with his promise to take Clifford to Dinosaur World. These hells include, but are not limited to,

  1. Stealing a dog, stereo, and a surfboard from other passengers at the airport. Like, a dog. He took someone’s pet dog. Just because.
  2. Messing with his wife in the shower by scaring her with a toy dinosaur. Clifford kind of falls in love/lust with her, which is totally normal for a 10-year-old.
  3. Placing a bomb threat at a dinner party using spliced-together recordings of Martin.
  4. Tricking Martin to take a train from L.A. to San Francisco while destroying Martin’s home via party.
  5. Getting Martin fired from his job by blowing up his model during Martin’s presentation.
  6. Ending the relationship between Martin and Sarah.
  7. Pushing Martin into kidnapping him with the hopes of sending him away to prison for life.

Martin Short’s performance truly has to be seen to be believed — as in, every scene you’ll be elbowing the person you’re watching this with and saying, “Can you believe this?” You need a specific sense of humor to find this funny, and if not, you’ll find yourself in a state of mental discomfort for 90 minutes.

Clifford was a massive bomb that embarrassed about everyone involved in making it and ended Grodin and Short starring in anything, but that’s the sort of mess that can grow into a legend over time. To some, this has become a so-bad-it’s-actually-demented-genius, but to others, it’s a 40-car pile-up on the interstate that someone had the urge to record for posterity.

I’m kind of in awe of it. I kind of hate it at the same time. That’s Clifford for you.

Didja notice?

  • The genuinely neat storybook picture opening titles
  • Sure, why not start a weird comedy in 2050?
  • In the future, Catholic priests get a robe upgrade to look like Star Trek
  • The kids trying to throw tomatoes at the Father
  • Short gets three quick blows to the head, the third time by a falling boy (!)
  • “I’m sorry Miss Nice Older Person!”
  • Kids are fun to lasso
  • This is the most forced marital fight ever
  • When did Clifford have time to make a banner in an airport?
  • Dinosaur in the shower
  • And now for some random topless nudity in a PG movie
  • Of course Clifford has a recorder that he totes around
  • The mom hitting both Clifford and Martin
  • “WHAT’S A FACE LIFT?”
  • The light fiddling in the police station is a funny moment
  • Martin shoving Clifford’s face in the cereal
  • “If you touch the dinosaur, I will kill you.”
  • Clifford’s showtunes moment through the train station
  • That’s the worst way to take off a necklace ever
  • Nothing like sexual harassment and a kid talking about people touching his “no nos” in a family comedy
  • Martin nailing Clifford’s door shut
  • Where do you get straightjackets at this time of night?
  • Teddy the Pterodactyl
  • So this ride is a dark ride… and a rollercoaster… and has a laser gun… and a horrible It’s a Small World song at the end?

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