Before PEN15 There Was Clifford, 1994’s Weirdest Comedy Movie
PEN15 had to have been one of the hardest pitches in pilot history – I imagine Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle showing up to the offices of Hulu and asking a room full of executives the question “what if you made a live-action middle school comedy about the awkwardness of puberty and young love, but the lead characters were played by us, two comedians in our thirties?” The baffling proposition somehow led to the creation of one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of the last few years which sadly concluded its final season this past December.
The absurd aesthetic of very visibly adult actors pretending to be children is so perfectly weird and weirdly perfect for a cringe comedy like PEN15, but any aspiring actor/writer who takes inspiration from PEN15 should tread lightly when it comes to adults playing kids. For every show like PEN15 that pulls off a stunt like this, there is a movie like Clifford that crashes the idea into a mountain and eats itself.
Clifford was a 1994 comedy film that followed a very familiar formula – Clifford is a precocious ten year old whose desires and eccentricities are incongruent with the stuffy adult world he occupies. He clashes with the authority figures in his life, mainly his family, and they struggle to understand him while he desperately yearns for the missing piece that will make his life feel whole. It even features a framing device where the entire film is a flashback and the story is being told to Ben Savage, Fred Savage’s younger brother, many years in the future. Because apparently people loved The Princess Bride so much that we all collectively demanded to have all stories told to a Savage before it reaches the general audience
There’s one catch – Clifford is played by an extremely 40 years-old Martin Short. Just like in PEN15, none of the other characters in Clifford’s universe acknowledge that this ten year old looks like he holds an AARP membership, but unlike in Erskine and Konkle’s masterpiece sitcom, the dissonance between Clifford’s character and his appearance isn’t awkwardly charming – it’s freaking demonic.
Clifford was shot in 1990 with the intention of releasing it in 1991, but the production studio, Orion Pictures, held the film’s future in limbo while it struggled with an uncertain financial outlook. Tragically, the studio remained solvent long enough to finally release their kraken of creepiness onto an audience completely unprepared for the 90-minute nightmare. Clifford bounced off the box office like a paper plane off a brick wall, and the film grossed just $7.4 million off of its astounding $19 million budget. Some studios just deserve to fail.
Audiences found the image of a middle-aged Martin Short dressed up in a school boy outfit while squealing about dinosaurs immensely off-putting, and some people were confused as to why they wasted 90 excruciating minutes of their life waiting for the big red dog to appear – the film shares a name with the wildly popular children’s book series but has no association with the franchise.
But the problem with Clifford wasn’t just that a wrinkled Martin Short was a poor casting choice for a ten year old boy – it’s that this ten year-old boy was the most malicious, mean-spirited, sociopathic child character in film history not to be the literal antichrist like Damien from The Omen.
The story starts with Hitl – er, um – Clifford, on a flight to Hawaii with his exasperated parents played by Richard Kind and Jennifer Savidge. As they fly over Los Angeles, Clifford spots Dinosaur World, a fictitious amusement park which Clifford has apparently been dreaming of visiting for years. Clifford somehow manages to shut down the plane’s engines and forces an emergency landing in Los Angeles, where his parents contact Clifford’s uncle Martin, played by Charles Grodin, and dump their demon child off on him so that they can finally enjoy a moment free from their horrible burden of a son.
Martin takes Clifford in as an attempt to show his fiancé Sarah, played by Mary Steenburgen, that he can be a competent protector and father to their future children. Clifford is immediately smitten by Sarah, as well as Martin’s position as a ride engineer at Dinosaur World, a job that is made torturous by Martin’s (and Sarah’s) domineering, womanizing, wig-wearing boss, Mr. Ellis.
Mr. Ellis assigns Martin an impossible project which causes Martin to renege on a promise to bring Clifford to the theme park. Clifford begins a campaign of both psychological and literal terrorism to destroy Martin as revenge for not immediately taking off work to bring Clifford to Dinosaur World. I guess committing numerous felonies was easier than just waiting for the weekend.
Clifford engages in numerous acts of sabotage designed to embarrass Martin at work and in front of Sarah’s family, the most egregious of which is cutting audio from Martin’s outgoing voicemail message into a bomb threat that Clifford then sent to City Hall, leading to Martin’s arrest and interrogation. Meanwhile, Sarah is invited by the lecherous Mr. Ellis to spend a night in San Francisco together, a fact which Clifford uses to goad Martin into behaving rashly.
Clifford tricks Martin into taking the train from LA to San Francisco while Clifford throws a massive destructive party in Martin’s home for a random assortment of surfer bros who agree to take Clifford to Dinosaur World in payment. Martin and Sarah have a fight, after which Mr. Ellis tries to force himself upon Sarah in a limousine in one of the most uncomfortable and inexplicable depictions of attempted assault in a movie meant for children. Sarah fights off Ellis’ advances and rips the wig off his head.
An enraged Martin returns home to lock Clifford up in his room while Martin attempts to finish his project. After one last act of sabotage by Clifford that causes the project to literally go up in flames, Martin snaps and drags a bound Clifford to Dinosaur World for some revenge. Martin straps Clifford into one of the rides and gradually increases the speed as Clifford goes around the loop over and over in a light-hearted bout of child torture. The ride eventually malfunctions and Martin has to make the objectively incorrect choice to save the life of his psychopath nephew. Clifford atones for his sins, and the two reconcile at Martin and Sarah’s wedding with the most awful on-screen cheek-kiss you've ever seen from an adult man to another adult dressed as a little boy.
It truly cannot be overstated how annoying, insidious, and unlikable Martin Short’s character is in this movie. Even if an age-appropriate actor was chosen, the dark, cynical, psychopathic nature of this film that was apparently meant for children still would have made Clifford a 90-minute exercise in audience abuse. Martin Short’s horribly off-putting 40 year-old facial expressions are just an extra kick to the groin in this joyless and grating monstrosity.
While visually and sonically upsetting, the film did have a small handful of genuinely funny moments, despite the jokes being completely out of place in a children’s movie – in this scene, Martin and Clifford pull up to a gas station where Clifford spots a van headed to Dinosaur World. While Martin is distracted, Clifford follows a child dressed in a full-body T-Rex costume into the bathroom where he gives the kid a fat wad of cash that Clifford stole from his uncle in return for the dinosaur costume. After donning his new disguise, Clifford jumps in the Dinosaur World-bound van. Martin finds the other child in the bathroom dressed in Clifford’s clothes and sniffs out the plot, and when the other child’s mother confronts Martin about the whereabouts of her son, Martin tells her “The last time I saw him, he was counting the money that he made in the men’s room.”
Legendary film critic Roger Ebert was among the overwhelming majority of viewers to have an intensely negative reaction to Clifford when he gave the film two thumbs down and, in summarizing its awfulness, he said, “I'd love to hear a symposium of veteran producers, marketing guys and exhibitors discuss this film. It's not bad in any usual way. It's bad in a new way all its own. There is something extraterrestrial about it, as if it's based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe. The movie is so odd, it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope.”
Thankfully, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine didn’t listen to him. PEN15 succeeds at the strange setup of adults playing children because the awkward visual of a 5’7” Konkle fawning over a very twelve year old child is supposed to make you cringe – at no point is the audience meant to think that the leads aren’t played by adults. Somehow, the lunatics behind Clifford thought that Martin Short was going to be so convincing that audiences would forget that it’s a 40 year-old man humping Mary Steenburgen’s leg and not the most hateable child on the planet.
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