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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 Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4

Sometimes it is a single strategic mistake that is a movie's downfall. So it is with Disney's live action remake of their 1961 classic ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS. This time they call it simply 101 DALMATIANS, and this time they simply forget the part that made the original work -- the dogs' story.

The live action version stars people who have dogs. The cartoon version is clear who is in charge, and it is not the humans. In the original the animals refer to the people as their pets. In the animated version the dogs are the stars. Most important of all is that the charm of the original came from the dogs' conversations, not the people's. In an era of talking animal pictures both good (BABE) and bad (GORDY), there is no reason why the Disney remake could not have given these pups a voice.

Moreover, not only did they not give them a voice, they forgot their personalities too. In the cartoon there are many unique types, but in the new version they do little more than give the dogs names. There are only a few token scenes where they let the dogs attempt to establish an identity.

Even given the mistakes in its creation and its lack of effective direction by Stephen Herek, there is still much to admire in the picture. Hands down, the best part of the film is Glenn Close's near perfect performance as that archfiend Cruella De Vil. Close has a blast giving an outlandish rendition of a heinous fiend.

Three time Academy Award winning costume designer Anthony Powell (TESS, DEATH ON THE NILE, and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT) out does himself with Cruella's outfits. Suffice it to say that she would make the top of any animal rights group's hate list. As she says, "I live for fur. I worship fur." When Cruella speaks, it is frequently accompanied by thunder and lighting so that you do not miss the point of how wicked she is.

Cruella's hairdo with black on one side and white on the other is the piece de resistance of her appearance. She is one sinister acting and looking devil.

The script is written by John Hughes and is based on the book by Dodie Smith. Hughes does not know the word subtle. You may remember him from his first two HOME ALONE films, and I am sorry to report that there will be a HOME ALONE 3. In his defense, his FARRIS BUELLAR'S DAY OFF is one of my favorite comedies.

Working in Cruella's clothing design studio is meek Anita (Joely Richardson from LOCH NESS). When Anita confesses that she might one day want to quit, get married and raise a family, an incensed Cruella fumes, "We lose more women to marriage than war, famine, and disease."

Through her Dalmatian, Anita meets and falls in love with video game designer and fellow Dalmatian owner Roger (Jeff Daniels from GETTYSBURG). No boring old author as in the original. Both Daniels and Richardson are wasted in their roles. They provide little more than window dressing to Cruella and the pups. On their first meeting, Roger accidentally pops the question with, "Do you want a cup of marriage, uh, tea?" Soon she is delivering their first baby and their dogs are having fifteen puppies.

One problem with the remake is that you really need to have seen and remember the original to appreciate the nuances of the story. This is particularly true of "the barking chain," which is carefully explained in the cartoon but just happens in the live action version.

The biggest disappointment to me is the scene where the puppies watch television. That is a long and precious scene in the original. The remake has only a vastly truncated and lifeless reenactment.

I am not going to bother outlining any more of the plot. If you want to know more of the story line, you can read my review of the original that I wrote precisely 101 days before the opening tonight of the remake.

There are some technical aspects worth mentioning. The set designs by Assheton Gorton are imaginative, particularly the ending scene, which is adorable on many counts. Michael Kamen's music is full of energy and bristling with adventure. Adrian Biddle's cinematography is bland indoors, but outside his blue gray snow images are lovely and evocative of what the picture should have been.

The makers of 101 DALMATIANS connected all the dots, but did they weave a compelling story? I think not. Although there were some nice dog shots, the show is devoid of life save Cruella's villainy. A picture more tedious than charming. Skip this one and rent the original.

101 DALMATIANS runs 1:43. Some theaters are showing a short cartoon with it, but ours did not. The picture is rated G and would be fine for kids of any age. There is one scene where Cruella is slashing at a hay stack with a pitchfork in a futile attempt to stab a puppy, but our audience of little ones did not seem frighten by it. Other than that, there is no violence, sex, nudity, or bad language. I could have done without the scene of a puppy peeing on Cruella's picture to demonstrate his hatred of her. My son Jeffrey (age 7 1/2) gives the show a thumbs up, but he remained inanimate during most of the movie. I give the movie a mild thumbs down and rate it **.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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