Glenn Close and the lead dogs are great, but a key conceptual decision and a less-than-inspired climax prevent Disney’s new, live-action “101 Dalmatians” from being the cat’s meow. Given the irresistible, time-tested premise, ultra-stylish production and giant promo push, nothing could prevent this from being an international B.O. smash, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its full entertainment potential.
Original 1961 animated film, reissued several times since, remains a Disney favorite among many for its relative lack of schmaltz and visual style that was somewhat harder-edged than usual for the studio. In adjusted dollars, pic actually ranks as the fifth most popular film of all time, and second only to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” among Disney features.
This popularity, augmented incalculably by video sales, will carry over into tremendous want-see for the new version. Fans of the original will not only not feel betrayed or let down, but will delight in certain elaborations in John Hughes’ new screenplay, most notably in the treatment of arch villainess Cruella DeVil, whose most passionate desire is to make a unique fur coat out of the too-precious puppies.
Set contemporaneously but in a London with a feel of decades ago, tale gets off to a terrific start, as the attraction between the Dalmatians of Yank computer game designer Roger (Jeff Daniels) and fashion designer Anita (Joely Richardson) brings their masters together into instantaneous marriage. Slo-mo scene of Roger’s pooch, Pongo, melting at the sight of Anita’s hound, Perdy, is priceless, and subsequent chase through London streets and parks, with Pongo pulling Roger’s bicycle in a desperate attempt to catch up with his inamorata, is handled with outstanding smoothness and skill.
Canine lovebirds are soon expecting, as are their human counterparts. Disgusted by the latter development, Anita’s boss, the outlandish, fearsome fashion-world diva Cruella DeVil (Close), is more intrigued by the prospect of some little doggies, as Anita has inadvertently given her the idea for her latest creation, an authentic Dalmatian coat.
Suspecting the worst, the young couple refuse to sell the litter — 15 in all — to Cruella, who furiously vows revenge. To do her bidding, she turns to two bumbling crooks (Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams) who have just managed to procure an endangered white Siberian tiger for her from the London Zoo; in short order the pups are kidnapped and spirited to a distant old mansion, where 84 other Dalmatians await a cruel fate.
From here on, story becomes considerably more conventional in its handling. While a baffled police force can only hope for the best, word passes on the animal network as to the doggies’ peril, and a local barnyard battalion springs into action, dispatching the hapless kidnappers and guiding the pups to safety. With the conclusion foregone, final act is protracted needlessly and even a bit tiresomely, and pic suffers by losing the emotional identification provided by Roger and Anita and Pongo and Perdy, who essentially disappear until the wrap-up.
Where the film misses its biggest bet, however, is in depriving the animals of the voices they had in the animated version. The intelligence and sincerity of Pongo and Perdy’s dialogue and readings, along with the distinctive vocal characterizations for the other animals, accounted for much of the picture’s charm, creating a parallel universe for the four-legged personalities that was appealing and convincing. One might have expected that, in this post-“Babe” era, the dogs here would have been given the same capacity for verbal expression, but, alas, they just bark, whimper and growl. Within the film’s terms, the two canine leads are extremely expressive, and the puppies are irresistible (except when some are obviously animated toward the end). But it seems that much more was possible.
Although the two hopeless pup robbers come directly from the original film, they also are straight out of the “Home Alone” movies — penned, as was this one, by Hughes — and their shenanigans grow a bit tedious. Joan Plowright pops up as a stalwart nanny even before any offspring arrive, and Daniels and Richardson prove winning and well-matched as the earnest and affable central couple.
But the human side is dominated — if human she be — by Close. Fully conversant with the grande dame persona after her turn onstage as Norma Desmond, Close is like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford combined as the fashion-plate witch who delights in making humans and animals alike quake at the thought of her, who treads the Earth as if she owned every inch of it and brandishes her scarlet cigarette holder as a symbol of the terror she relishes spreading everywhere she goes.
Close delivers show-stopping line readings that are simply nonpareil, while the character’s externals — the skunk-like black-and-white hair, the brilliantly extravagant gowns (down to manicured nails built into her gloves), her sleek Coupe DeVil and outrageous office — have been provided by expert hands led by costume designers Anthony Powell and Rosemary Burrows, and production designer Assheton Gorton.
Film in general is appointed as luxuriously as a Rolls, with lenser Adrian Biddle’s widescreen framing ideally suited to doggie dimensions, and director Stephen Herek wringing maximum emotional mileage out of the unspoken but emphatic paralleling of the human and canine family values. Michael Kamen’s proficient score outwears its welcome simply because it virtually wallpapers the picture, especially in the final half-hour.