Clifford (film)

Clifford is a 1994 American black comedy film directed by Paul Flaherty and starring Martin Short, Charles Grodin, Mary Steenburgen and Dabney Coleman.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byPaul Flaherty
Produced byLarry Brezner
Pieter Jan Brugge
Written byJay Dee Rock
Bobby Von Hayes
Narrated byMartin Short
Music byRichard Gibbs
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited byTim Board
Pembroke J. Herring
Morra, Brezner, Steinberg and Tenenbaum Entertainment (MBST)
Orion Pictures
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • April 1, 1994 (1994-04-01)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$7.4 million[1]

The film was shot in 1990 and originally planned for release in the summer of 1991, but remained in limbo for several years due to Orion Pictures' bleak financial situation. It was not released until 1994, and was a critical and commercial failure. Despite this, the film has developed a cult following over the years.


At a Catholic school in 2050, a troublesome boy named Roger (Ben Savage) is running away after threatening to blow up the gym due to not being allowed to play on the basketball team – though he was accepted onto the team his parents have strictly forbidden contact sports. He's stopped by Father Clifford Daniels (Martin Short), an old priest, who tries to persuade him to change his ways by telling him a story of his own youth, stating that "when we get frustrated, it can cause a lot of damage".

In the flashback, 10-year-old Clifford is a deceptive, sneaky, devious, obnoxious, evil, and unusual boy who never lets go of a toy dinosaur named Steffen. He talks to and blames Steffen for his own actions. He loves dinosaurs and his dream is to visit Dinosaur World, a theme park in California, but he's never considered, especially by his workaholic parents Julian (Richard Kind) and Theodora (Jennifer Savidge).

While flying with his parents to Honolulu on a business trip, Clifford purposely causes the pilot to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. Because Clifford is banned from flight, Julian scolds him as he can't attend the appointment but also can't abandon Clifford in the city without risking child abandonment charges. He phones his brother, Martin (Charles Grodin) — who resides in the city — to propose the idea of Clifford staying with him temporarily. While Clifford sees this as his opportunity to finally visit Dinosaur World, Martin thinks that this is the perfect opportunity to prove to his fiancee, Sarah Davis (Mary Steenburgen), how well he interacts with children. However, he has not seen Clifford since his baptism, and thus is completely unaware of Clifford's potential for hazardous antics.

Upon their reunion, Martin reveals to Clifford that he designed Larry the Scary Rex (a Dinosaur World attraction) and can get into the park free of charge, which strengthens Clifford's obsession to visit. Martin promises to take him there, but is ultimately forced to break it as his work demands him to redesign LA's public transit system - one of Martin's biggest dreams - in two days. Clifford even attempts to sneak away by posing as someone else's son, in a dinosaur costume, but he's caught by Martin, and Martin is disappointed in Clifford. He tells Clifford that Dinosaur World trip is off and sends him up to his room to think about everything he has done.

Clifford becomes enraged at Martin's promise break (Even more when he discovers that while Martin won't take him to Dinosaur World, he can spare time for Sarah's parents' 35th wedding anniversary party), and thus starts working to sabotage Martin's life, jeopardizing his career and even his relationship with Sarah in the process. He compliments Martin's boss, Gerald Ellis (Dabney Coleman), on his toupee, humiliates Martin at the party by putting Tabasco sauce in his Bloody Mary drink, ruining an unprepared toast that Martin is giving, and even switches his cocoa butter with lipstick, making a comedic scene. Clifford finally gets Martin arrested in front of Sarah's family after calling in a fake bomb threat in city hall, made out of mixing audios of Martin's scolding of Clifford with his answering machine.

As he's released on bail, Martin scolds Clifford again, but tries reasoning with him, trying to share Martin's own experiences of being denied his own visit to an old theme park before it was ultimately demolished. He tries getting Clifford to write a confession of the bomb incident, but Clifford seems to have run away to catch a train to San Francisco, where Sarah travels per Mr. Ellis' request (later revealed as an attempt by Ellis to try moving in on her). Martin tries giving chase, but can't find him before the train starts running with him inside. Smiling, Clifford returns to Martin's home, where he throws a juvenile party in exchange for his trip to Dinosaur World. Martin gradually snaps out of his sanity, perceiving Clifford as a threat, and when he returns home, he traps Clifford (who tries making a scene by pretending he's tied up) by boarding doors and windows. Clifford is released next morning by Sarah, who breaks up with Martin in disgust, taking Clifford with her. As Martin arrives late to Ellis's presentation of Martin's transit system, the Los Angeles city model explodes, costing Martin his job - the last of Clifford's antics.

Having had enough, Martin decides it is his duty to humanity to kill Clifford. He kidnaps Clifford and finally takes him to Dinosaur World after closing hours and makes him ride Larry the Scary Rex. After going through it once, Clifford seems to enjoy himself, so Martin increases the ride's speed repeatedly. When set to hyper speed, the ride malfunctions and Clifford's cart crashes, leaving him dangling above the jaws of the malfunctioning robotic dinosaur. He cries out for Martin to save him. Martin hesitates — worried about the future of mankind if he saves Clifford and fact that Clifford has so completely ruined his life — but ultimately, he risks his own life and saves him instead. Clifford finally apologizes for his behavior, but Martin doesn't forgive him, telling Clifford he's not human, but a 'destructive thing people eventually get to hate'. Though it doesn't look like it, Clifford is heartbroken, and decides not to go home with Martin.

Back in the future, Father Clifford says that this experience made him turn his life around, telling Roger that "if you destroy everyone in the way of your dreams, you will end up alone, with no dreams at all." Eventually, Martin invited him to his and Sarah's wedding, finally forgiving him after Clifford sent over two hundred letters of apology.

Moved by the tale, Roger decides to not run away and instead write hundreds of letters, asking for forgiveness. Father Clifford then takes Steffen saying, "Mission accomplished, old friend."


Critical reception

The film was critically panned. It currently holds a 10% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews (27 negative, 3 positive).[2] Roger Ebert gave the film a half-star of a possible four. He wrote: "The movie is so odd, it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope."[3] He and his colleague film critic Gene Siskel gave Clifford "Two thumbs down" on their television show with particular criticism towards Martin Short's casting as Clifford, Ebert stated that "Short looks so weird that there's never a moment where you can stop gawking at him long enough for the character to gather up any momentum". Siskel agreed stating that Martin Short "looks like a wizened little dwarf" and referring to his character as "very unhappy".[4]

Despite this broader negative reception, Clifford has since gained a reputation as a cult classic.[5][6]


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