Transfiguring Adoption’s Overview:
Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021) is a new family live-action movie based on the children’s books by Norman Bridwell. The movie is cute and fairly predictable though still enjoyable. It also had some surprisingly heavy moments that I was not expecting going into the movie. This includes some scenes of separation from loved ones that might be especially important to be aware of with kiddos who have experienced trauma. Overall, the target age-range is probably more upper-elementary or middle schoolers (the main character is aged up to be in middle school) and definitely aimed at an older audience than the picture-books and cartoon series which are marketed to the preschool crowd.
** Spoilers Could Be Ahead **
How Is This Relevant To Adoption & Foster Care?
The movie does not directly relate to foster care or adoption, although Clifford the puppy is adopted by Emily Elizabeth and becomes a part of her family. While he is an animal, he is very much anthropomorphized as a character and children will likely relate to his story of being abandoned and alone and then taken in by Emily Elizabeth. Emily lives with her biological mother (and there is no mention of her father), though during the course of the movie she is being cared for by her uncle while her mom is away working. There are also themes about bullying and stigma that children who have experienced trauma are likely to relate to.
- The Importance of Community
Though Emily Elizabeth does live with her biological mother, we also see her add to her found family throughout the movie as she forms close relationships with her uncle Casey, Clifford, and her new friend Owen, as well as many of her neighbors who band together to help save the day. When children have been separated from their birth family, obviously there is a loss of their familial relationships. But oftentimes there is also a loss of other community connections; they might be changing schools, neighborhoods, and in some cases even moving to a new city, state or country. So, in addition to separation from their birth family they are also potentially being separated from friends, teachers, neighbors, and other community members. This can be a great opportunity to talk as a family about the importance of these community connections and how to help your children build relationships both within the family but also outside of it.
- Healthy vs. Unhealthy Goodbyes
Early in the movie we see Clifford get left behind after Animal Control takes his mother and siblings. He is left to wander alone until Bridwell finds him and takes him in and he’s eventually adopted by Emily Elizabeth. Later, Emily Elizabeth is forced to send Clifford away to an animal reservation as it is no longer safe for him to live with her. Emily Elizabeth loves Clifford and believes she is doing what’s best for him but it’s still a very painful separation for both of them. This can be an opportunity to talk about what healthy goodbyes look like vs. unhealthy ones and ways you can help prepare your child for goodbyes they will inevitably have to say in the future, whether that’s because they’re going to a new placement, returning to biological family, or even if they are in their permanent home, they will one day have to say goodbye to friends or loved ones in some capacity. Because they’ve experienced relationship loss that was likely traumatic this can be a hard but important topic to talk about so they are prepared.
- Stigma and Misunderstanding
At the end of the movie Emily says, “Different doesn’t mean dangerous” when talking to her community members. Clifford is incredibly misunderstood and the community has come to believe he is dangerous because of his size, fueled by rumors from Lifegro that are then perpetuated by the police officers trying to hunt him down. Those who know Clifford personally know he would never hurt anyone intentionally. Children who have experienced trauma may relate heavily to these feelings, often children who are in foster care or who have lived through trauma are stigmatized and portrayed as being troublemakers or even dangerous, when often that just isn’t the case. This can be especially true with older children and teenagers. Use this as an opportunity to talk with children about the stigma and misconceptions that Clifford experiences, as well as their own experiences with being judged if they feel up to it.
- Clifford Gets Left Behind
At the very beginning of the movie, we see a mother dog and her puppies living in an abandoned warehouse. Animal Control comes and takes the mom and puppies (presumably to a shelter to get adopted). But Clifford is overlooked and left behind by himself. While Clifford is a dog, not a person, this scene may still be very triggering to children who were removed from their birth families or experienced family separation of any kind.
- Bullying and Cyberbullying
Emily Elizabeth is teased and bullied by her peers at school, mostly for the fact that her family doesn’t have a lot of money. Most notably they call her ‘Food Stamp’. There’s also a scene where we see a video playing on her computer showing where her classmates have recorded her falling down at school and posted it online with mean comments.
It’s clear that Emily Elizabeth’s family doesn’t have a lot of money. In addition to classmates teasing, they mention several times about living in a rent-controlled apartment. Her uncle Casey also states that he is ‘between apartments’ and we see him living in his van. After the landlord finds out about Clifford, Emily and Casey come home to a locked apartment with an eviction notice on the door. These references may be upsetting to children who have lived in poverty or been homeless in the past.
- Somewhat Questionable Caregiver
When Emily Elizabeth’s mom goes out of town for work her Uncle Casey is left to babysit. He clearly loves her and means well but he’s very immature and chaotic. He makes several jokes about previous times he babysat and ‘lost’ her. He also doesn’t seem to keep a particularly close eye on Emily Elizabeth and she ends up off on her own doing such things as illegally driving a truck. While Uncle Casey doesn’t do anything malicious and Emily Elizabeth doesn’t come to any real harm, the fact that Emily’s mother leaves her in his care when she specifically asks her not to and has had poor experiences previously doesn’t sit well.
- A Fair Amount of Bathroom Humor
There are a number of jokes about Clifford’s bathroom habits (which, like him, are supersized). Also mentions of taking temperature in his ‘butthole’, and dogs
needing to ‘sniff each other’s’ butt cheeks’.
- Mild Peril
There are some scenes of mild peril, including Clifford chasing a person using an inflatable Zorb ball (though no harm comes to them). There is also a car chase scene which includes Emily
Elizabeth illegally driving the moving truck. A man also falls off a roof and is hanging precariously for a few moments before Clifford saves him.
- Presumed Character Death/Hospital Scene
Emily Elizabeth and Uncle Casey are looking for Mr. Bridwell and their search takes them to the hospital. Emily notices his bowtie and is told that the owner of those clothes has passed away. We later learn that it was someone else who died, not Mr. Bridwell but the scene may still be triggering for children who have lost a loved one recently or had a situation where they were not able to say goodbye to someone.
- Extremely Sad Goodbye Scene
With Lifegro after them, Emily Elizabeth is forced to accept that it’s not safe for Clifford to stay with her any longer. She makes the very difficult decision to send Clifford to live on an animal reservation where he will be protected. It’s a very emotional scene watching her say goodbye to him, expecting that she may not see him again. This is likely a mirror to what some children experience coming into care. Their birth family may have recognized that they could not provide the environment necessary for the children and they were placed in foster care or adoption to give them their best chance at a safe and healthy future. This scene may bring up some of those big and difficult-to-process feelings.
About the Author: Jenn Ehlers
Jenn is a central Virginia native who received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012. Since then she has worked for a local mental health agency and the Department of Social Services in various capacities and has been involved in her community’s efforts to create a Trauma Informed Network. Currently Jenn works in vocational rehab and mentors youth in foster care. When she isn’t working, Jenn enjoys writing stories, anything and everything Harry Potter, and spending time with her niece and nephew.
**Transfiguring Adoption is a nonprofit organization seeking to nurture growth in foster and adoptive families by giving a HOOT about their families. Transfiguring Adoption does not intend for its reviewers nor its review to be professional, medical or legal advice. These reviews and discussion guides are intended to help parents to better be able to connect and understand their children who come from traumatic backgrounds.