The cartoon is way better. That's the bottom line on Disney's incredibly
hyped live action version of its 1961 animated feature. The alliance
between Disney and slapstick king John Hughes has produced a frenetic
"Home Alone" with puppies, and not much else.
When production of this remake was announced, the big question seemed to
be "Why? The original cartoon still works, so what's the point?" The
answer, it appears, is to give Disney an excuse for yet another massive
The story, for those of you who missed childhood, is simple. Two
Dalmatians, Pongo and Perdy, fall in love at first sight. They drag their
"human pets" together, and in a short time both couples marry. The
heavenly match-ups turn chaotic when Pongo and Perdy's new-born pups are
stolen; their dog-napping engineered by the evil Cruella DeVil, who wants
them for their pelts. Everyone in the animal kingdom then joins in a
frantic effort to save the puppies.
In the original movie, the animated pooches had a broad range of facial
expressions and distinct personalities. We also could hear them talk,
which quickly established a crucial element to the charm of the film, the
dog's view of humans as their pets.
In the new version, the dogs are mute and expressionless. Hughes attempts
to give them character with repeated shots of the Dalmatians draping
their heads over each other and licking their faces and necks. While he
drew the desired "Aww, they're so cute" reaction from the audience, it
was quickly followed by several people whispering "I wonder what kind of
food they smeared on the dog's heads to get them licking like that?"
The canines' lack of personality would be easier to take if the human
beings had a little. Joely Richardson and Jeff Daniels are stunningly
bland in their lead roles. In previous films, Daniels successfully played
off his white bread persona. In "Something Wild", he revealed the
rebellious thrill-seeker beneath his neutral demeanor. In "Terms Of
Endearment", his hapless appearance masked a cold, manipulative womanizer.
Here, he and Richardson are so consistently bland that it's a wonder
their images even stick to the film.
Glenn Close, however, has no problems establishing a distinct personality.
As the villainous icon Cruella DeVil, she tears up the screen in a
deliciously over-the-top performance. Close matches the intensity of the
animated Cruella by becoming a cartoon herself. With a two-tone fright
wig, red gloves with long nails attached to the fingertips, garish animal
skin outfits and stiletto heels, Close bursts through her scenes like a
force of nature. She's clearly having a ball playing this monstrous icon,
and her wicked glee is infectious. When she spits out lines like "you've
won the battle, but I'm about to win the wardrobe!," the film comes
briefly to life.
"101 Dalmatians" is crammed with John Hughes' typical heavy-handed
approach to comedy. After an ingenuous opening showing Pongo's morning
routine as he gets Daniels prepared for the day, the film quickly tumbles
into lame slapstick as the pooch drags Daniels on a careening trek
through a city park. A little slapstick goes a long way, but Hughes just
keeps laying it on. The second half of the film, where local animals team
up to rescue 99 nondescript Dalmatian puppies from DeVil and her henchmen,
is a tedious Home Alone clone, with the bad guys enduring a variety of
sadistic assaults worthy of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, including a thug
getting his testicles fried on an electric fence.
"101 Dalmatians" has cute puppies and a hoot of a performance from Glenn
Close, but not enough to warrant enduring third rate slapstick, bland
characters, and unconvincing animatronic raccoons high-fiving one another.
Rent the cartoon!
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott