A Cruella World
Pongo, the spotted star of “101 Dalmatians,” starts his master’s shower, gets the morning coffee going, brings in the milk, even turns on the computer. With an animal this capable, Walt Disney Pictures should have gone all out and let the dog write and direct the movie. It might have helped.
A live-action remake of the fondly remembered 1961 feature-length cartoon, “101 Dalmatians” is one of those movies in which most of the energy and intelligence has gone into marketing and product tie-ins, leaving little left over for the picture itself. Fluffy and mild to the point of somnolence, it can’t even get the full benefit of its strongest asset, Glenn Close’s performance as the grasping virago Cruella DeVil.
Played with great style and enthusiasm by Close, and costumed to perfection by Anthony Powell, Cruella vamps around in outlandish outfits that include the spikiest heels, a stretch limo version of a cigarette holder and elaborate gloves with fingernail claws. But her zest for lines like “I live for fur, I worship fur” can’t surmount the great wall of blandness that muffles this movie like a cocoon.
Though Pongo’s owner has been changed from a songwriter to a creator of video games, “Dalmatians’ ” core story has remained the same. Once again London residents Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) meet through the good offices of their dogs and end up married quicker than most people exchange telephone numbers.
Soon enough there comes the patter of small animal feet, which attracts the attention of Cruella (Anita’s old school chum in the original, here her boss and a fashion designer of some repute). She offers to buy all 15 puppies, but an understandably suspicious Roger turns her down.
Hardly daunted, Cruella hires a pair of imbecile henchpersons to kidnap the dogs from Nanny (Joan Plowright) and add them to her already sizable collection. Her object, the fashioning of a one-of-a-kind coat from their fur, comes up against a determined effort by an animal alliance that includes horses, goats, raccoons and several breeds of dog.
Though the original “Dalmatians” was well-liked despite its simplified and now dated animation style, its key elements turn out not to be well-suited to this considerably longer live-action remake (as anyone who managed to think past merchandising dollar signs would have realized).
For one thing, what’s acceptable in cartoon form does not register in the same way with flesh and blood. Jeff and Anita, for instance, merely nice in the original, here come off, despite the best efforts of quite capable actors, as possibly lobotomized simpletons.
Also, it’s in fact more amusing to see 101 cartoon Dalmatians than a similar number of live animals. And of course it’s considerably more horrific to think about skinning real dogs than their animated counterparts.
While the original did have its share of slapstick violence involving Cruella’s cretinous accomplices, those kinds of vapid pratfall sequences are so reminiscent of “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” that it’s no surprise to see John Hughes involved as screenwriter and co-producer.
Worst of all, this “Dalmatians,” as directed by Stephen Herek (“The Mighty Ducks,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus”), eliminates the original’s dog point of view, which means that Pongo’s arch observations in a superior British voice-over about his human “pets” are reduced to a series of random barks and face lickings. If that sounds like a doggone shame, it is.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: considerable cartoon-like violence.
Glenn Close: Cruella DeVil
Jeff Daniels: Roger
Joely Richardson: Anita
Joan Plowright: Nanny
A Great Oaks production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Stephen Herek. Producers John Hughes, Ricardo Mestres. Executive producer Edward S. Feldman. Screenplay by John Hughes. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle. Editor Trudy Ship. Costumes Anthony Powell with Rosemary Burrows. Production design Assheton Gorton. Art director John Ralph. Set decorator Joanne Woollard. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.