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101 Dalmatians

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: 101 Dalmatians

Starring: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels
Director: Stephen Herek
Rated: G
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: November 1996
Genres: Family, Kids

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1 star out of 4

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 merchandising campaign.

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

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