Judge Clark Douglas warns readers that this review is a bit spotty.
So many dogs. So little time.
"Oh, yes! I love the smell of near-extinction!"—Cruella De Vil
Facts of the Case
Roger (Jeff Daniels, The Lookout) is a video game designer who hasn't had a whole lot of success. Pongo, his Dalmatian, has given Roger the inspiration for a Dalmatian-themed videogame. He's hoping it will be his big break. Anita (Joely Richardson, The Last Mimzy) is a successful businesswoman working for a fashion design company run by the eccentric Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close, The World According to Garp). She's gotten the inspiration for a new "spot-heavy" fashion trend from her Dalmatian, Perdita. One day, these two Dalmatian-inspired people are taking a walk through the park. To make a long story short, the dogs fall in love, and so do their masters.
Before long, a bun is in Anita's oven, and 15 buns are in Perdita's oven. Cruella isn't too thrilled that one of her most valuable employees has been knocked up, but she's certainly pleased to hear about the puppies. She has devious plans for the little runts. Yes, very devious plans. Cruella plans to kidnaps all the soft, cute, fluffy little puppies and turn them into fur coats. Can Roger, Anita, Ponga, and Perdie save all 15 sweet little canines (plus 84 others) before they become a part of Cruella's wardrobe?
Okay, I just have to say, this movie is positively adorable. I can't remember many movies that have worked this hard to be cute. Normally, I have a remarkably cynical attitude toward such things, but this time…I don't know. The movie won me over with its endless attempts to convince me that it was the most lovable story ever committed to film. I'm a big fan of the original Disney animated film, which was also cute, but seems positively crusty in comparison to this one. There is no length to which the live-action 101 dalmatians will not go to make viewers let out a big, "Awwwwww!"
Consider the moment when Roger and Anita are sitting by the fire, warming up after being thrown into a lake by their pets.
"Thank you for the kiss you gave me," Anita sighs.
Meanwhile, the dogs are making loving gestures to each other as humanly as possible in order to raise their cuteness level for the audience. Rather than going around doing those perverted things that dogs do (rear-sniffing quickly followed by shameless doggy-style action), Pongo and Perdita nuzzle and kiss each other while making the sweetest whimpering noises. Somewhere in the middle of all this cuteness, both Perdita and Anita get pregnant. I'm not sure how this happened, but then this is the sort of movie where the nanny (Joan Plowright) can tell that a female of any species is pregnant by simply looking into their eyes and checking to see how much tenderness is there.
While this take on 101 Dalmatians is by no means the family classic that the animated version is, it's a very good-natured movie that's rather difficult to dislike. At least the animals don't talk, which is a good thing. Instead of hearing lots of pop culture references delivered by Michael J. Fox or some Beverly Hills Chihuahua, we get whimpers, growls, barks, and various forms of panting. I find such noises to be a bit more engaging than celebrity voice-overs. The story follows the animated film pretty closely, which is a hit-and-miss approach. It works pretty well during the scenes with the dogs, where scenes that were formerly dominated by spoken dialogue must be recreated in a completely visual manner.
A special nod should be tossed over to Hugh Laurie (back when he was better-known as Stephen Fry's frequent comedy partner rather than as a controversial doctor) and Mark Williams (before he was best-known as "Ron Weasley's dear old dad"), who play Cruella's henchmen. They have pretty good comic timing together, and Laurie gets to shoot off some genuinely funny lines (even in scenes where he is forced to shout at wacky animals). Joan Plowright is also quite good as the doting nanny. She would easily be the sweetest character in any other movie, but in this one there's some tough competition.
Disney's transfer is solid, featuring deep blacks and a crisp picture. There are some very minor specks here and there, but this is a clean-looking film. Sound is quite strong, with Michael Kamen's very effective score (note the cute use of a "pup-pup-pup-pup-puppies!" motif) getting a strong boost. Oddly, this re-release contains no extras other than a theatrical trailer, despite the fact that the less popular 102 Dalmatians is getting a release loaded down with supplements. Disappointing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some may disagree with me, but I think Glenn Close is probably the least interesting portion of the film. She's about as capable as anyone of playing Cruella De Vil, but frankly, the standard was too high. The animated Cruella was so effectively drawn and voiced that no ordinary human could live up to the task. Close often mimics moments from the animated film, but they just seem less intense here. It's not her fault; I just don't think it was going to be very easy for anyone to pull this role off successfully while trying to do a blatant imitation of the animated version. Besides, she spends most of her time being attacked by skunks, pigs, raccoons, and other animals. Not many performances could survive that.
Also, a good deal of the slapstick humor falls flat (no pun intended). Slapstick may be a chaotic form of comedy, but it works best when there is some sort of grace and comic timing involved. Here, as in so many modern comedies that try to employ slapstick, it is simply chaotic and messy. Watching lots of people run around frantically and falling down in a disorganized manner is not something that is funny in and of itself. Of course, comedy is quite subjective, but I think the majority of readers would concur with that assessment. Even more would probably agree with my feeling that scenes of dogs peeing on stuff aren't particularly original or interesting, either.
Despite some problems, 101 Dalmatians is a pleasant movie that the kiddies will undoubtedly enjoy. It should never be considered a replacement for the animated classic, but it's not a terrible alternate take.
Not guilty. Now, where did I put my fur coat?
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