No matter how cute child stars such as Shirley Temple and the Olsen twins are, a lot of the time you just want to smack them.
Something about the ease with which they summon phony emotions makes them seem inhuman -- we sense that many of these dimpled angels are really monsters. They're certainly ripe for being targets of satire, and the movie "Clifford" knows it. But the people who made this bizarre comedy didn't have the guts to follow through.
The title character is an unusually smart, unusually rotten kid who is obsessed with visiting California's fictitious Dinosaurworld. While flying to Hawaii with his parents, Clifford forces an emergency plane landing in California, where his parents pawn him off on his uptight Uncle Martin (Charles Grodin -- who could play this role in his sleep, and has). In short order, Clifford deliberately gets his uncle fired and thrown in the slammer, trashing his house for good measure.
It could be any other semi-comedy aimed at young audiences, except that the role of the 10-year-old Clifford is played by 42-year-old Martin Short. The gifted Short doesn't look anywhere near 10, of course, but he almost pulls it off anyway. He never acknowledges that there's anything weird about a man playing a character less than one-fourth his age (imagine George Burns playing Shannen Doherty's kid brother on "Beverly Hills, 90210," and you've got an idea what Short is up against).
Short's casting is the only reason for the movie, which is otherwise a fairly routine take on mischievous kids and their doofus elders. What "Clifford" is trying to do is show that kids can use their innocence to get what they want and that in a permissive age, a smart kid can be a horrifying manipulator.
It's a sharp idea. We've all seen a child like Clifford -- the bright, canny little brat who has his confused parents wrapped around his finger -- but that's part of the problem. "Clifford" makes its point about manipulative kids within its first 10 minutes. After that, you just want to kill the little bozo.
That we even give "Clifford" that much of a chance is a tribute to Martin Short, a brilliant comedian who, predictably, Hollywood can't figure out how to use (see also Tracey Ullman, Zero Mostel, Richard Pryor). Short's moments of comic invention (like the madcap little tunes he plays on his recorder or his pathetic, calculated cry of "Don't reject me" as his uncle wakes him from a nap) show what "Clifford" could have been if it had decided to really take a look at the seamy underbelly of Shirley Temple.
Instead, "Clifford" plays it safe, appealing to children who will be amused by Short's appalling behavior. Their parents, meanwhile, are likely to feel as if they're watching one of those endless "Saturday Night Live" skits that drone on way after their one joke has been sucked dry.
Starring Martin Short, Mary Steenburgen, Charles Grodin
Directed by Paul Flaherty
Released by Orion Pictures