More is not merrier in “102 Dalmatians,” an overly strenuous sequel to the live-action remake of the animated classic “101 Dalmatians” that plays like a pale reworking of its predecessor, a perhaps appropriate result for a film that sports 56 people credited as “spot removal artists.” Still, the spectacle of Glenn Close’s grandly malevolent Cruella De Vil once again terrorizing the Dalmatian population of London will enthrall moppets, and not even a Grinch could prevent these black-and-white canines, animatronic and otherwise, from chasing down a big B.O. bounty through the holiday season, and forever after in ancillary markets.
The 1961 cartoon adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel was Disney’s biggest hit since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” while the 1996 feature romped to a $136 million domestic gross and $320.5 million internationally. New entry shouldn’t end up too far off from those figures.
Basic dynamic of this spotty dog tale once more pivots on fashion-plate Cruella’s demented desire to create a unique Dalmatian-skin coat. When first seen, however, in an amusing opening gag, Cruella is the lone human occupant of a Behavior Control Lab for animals, where she has apparently been trained to adore the little pooches she once coveted for their special pelts.
Told upon her release that she will forfeit her entire fortune if she ever lapses into her old ways, Cruella reports to her probation officer, Chloe (Alice Evans), a Dalmatian owner who becomes involved with the mild-mannered Kevin (Ioan Gruffudd), who operates a perilously underfunded animal rescue home called 2nd Chance. Like a fox magnanimously assuming responsibility for a henhouse, the convicted dognapper underwrites the decrepit shelter and appoints it in her customary lavish style, turning 2nd Chance into the poshest pound in Blighty.
But, oddly, Big Ben’s bells suddenly make all of the lab’s rehabbed creatures revert to their former predatory selves, and Cruella, acting out the opposing extremes of her character as represented by her skunk-like black-and-white hairstyle, goes on the rampage. Rededicating herself to evil, she retrieves the dozens of fur coats she relegated to the basement and teams up with a loony French fashion designer, Jean Pierre Le Pelt (a thatch-topped, crazy-eyed Gerard Depardieu, not in his finest hour), to kidnap the many Dalmatians that have now come under her purview and spirit them off to Paris to be transformed into haute couture.
Lightweight frolicsome interludes are provided courtesy of Chloe and Kevin’s chaste courtship, which is always accompanied by the playful romps of assorted doggies. A restaurant date between the shy humans is even intercut with their housebound hounds watching a video of the spaghetti-sharing scene in “The Lady and the Tramp,” which will likely cause a spurt in sales for that Disney classic. The undoubted star among the new generation of pups is Oddball, an all-white puppy that must have taxed the abilities of all of those spot removers. Also helpful is Waddlesworth, a hyper-chatty green-winged macaw that thinks it’s a dog and is provided a lively voice by Eric Idle.
Given the virtually identical setup to the original and similar action involving animal and human pursuit of purloined pups to a remote outpost, it’s inevitable that the climax has a twice-baked flavor. Here and elsewhere, director Kevin Lima, making his live-action debut after scoring with Disney’s animated “Tarzan,” hits all the obvious notes hard, and must be held to account for indulging so much hammy mugging from his cast, particularly from Depardieu, Tim McInnerny as Cruella’s long-suffering valet and, it must be said, from Close herself, who goes further over the top than before with a less helpful script and minus the surprise factor of the character’s bold conceptualization. As the young romantic duo, Evans and Gruffudd are blandly adequate substitutes for Joely Richardson and Jeff Daniels.
Ace team of production designer Assheton Gorton, costume designer Anthony Powell and cinematographer Adrian Biddle was reassembled by producer Edward S. Feldman (exec producer of “101”) to lend valuable continuity to the new film’s look, and the animal performances will more than charm the intended audience.