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Should I Watch..? 101 Dalmatians (1996)
What's the big deal?
101 Dalmatians is a family comedy film released in 1996 and is the second adaptation of the Dodie Smith novel The Hundred And One Dalmatians from 1956. Of course, this live-action film is directly inspired by its animated predecessor released by Disney in 1961 - One Hundred And One Dalmatians (1) - and takes several cues from that earlier interpretation. This film features Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson and Hugh Laurie although none of the animals talk in this picture. The film did very well globally at the box office although the film's reviews on release were mixed. However, Close's portrayal of Cruella De Vil was universally praised by critics and there was enough interest to justify a sequel, 102 Dalmatians (2), that was released in 2000.
What's it about?
American video game designer Roger Dearly lives in London with his Dalmatian dog Pongo and whilst walking through the park, they literally bump into Anita and her Dalmatian Perdita. Both dogs and human owners fall in love simultaneously and eventually marry in a joint ceremony. Shortly afterwards, Anita's boss - the vile Cruella De Vil - falls into their lives and takes an unhealthy interest in their dogs, aspiring to make a fur coat. When Perdita delivers a total of fifteen puppies, Cruella appears to buy them but is firmly rebuked by Anita and Roger.
Undeterred, Cruella employs her two henchmen Horace and Jasper to steal the puppies and bring them safely to her country estate where 86 Dalmatian puppies are already stored. With the puppies stolen, it soon falls to Pongo and Perdita to get them all back as well as a number of other animals roped in to help with the rescue.
Cruella De Vil
John Hughes *
Release Date (UK)
13th December, 1996
What's to like?
Without question, Close is the best thing in the film with her wickedly perfect Cruella. Having just finished playing the equally dramatic Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (3) on stage undoubtedly helps Close, with her stark monochrome costumes and cigarette holder, as her De Vil is every inch the spoilt diva she should be. By contrast, Daniels and Richardson feel much flatter and less memorable but they are seasoned performers and their whirlwind romance is believable in the context of the film.
The bulk of the film's comedy comes from the slapstick antics of Laurie and Williams who are basically stepping into the bungling shoes of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. The film does veer quite a bit into Home Alone (4) territory but with animal performers instead of a hyperactive Macaulay Culkin. Having said that, screenwriter Hughes knows that most people remember the chaotic final third of that film more than the rest so I can't blame him from straying too far from the formula here. To their credit, Laurie and Williams are adept at physical comedy so you can't complain too much. The film also overdoes the number of animals on screen as the second half of the movie is pretty much non-stop slapstick as the dozens of puppies (all looking adorable, obviously) scamper away from the goofy bad guys. Dogs, ducks, mice, horses, pigs and even a raccoon - which any Englishman will tell you, we have thousands of the blighters over here! - get involved and despite the kiddie-friendly nature, I enjoyed myself perhaps more than I should.
- The film used some 20 adult Dalmatians and 230 Dalmatian puppies during shooting. Daniels recalled that many times, he heard the dog's handler on set shout "Sit!" and Jeff would promptly it in the nearest chair.
- Close would base Cruella's voice on Joanna Lumley's portrayal of Patsy in the TV show Absolutely Fabulous, focusing especially Lumley's plummy accent. Incidentally, both characters use cigarette holders.
- Screenwriter John Hughes made more money from this picture than any other in his illustrious career. His contract included a percentage of merchandising profits which, seeing as the film has around 17'000 items of merchandising, worked out very well for him indeed.
What's not to like?
So if the film's funny and filled with terrific animal performances and Glenn Close hamming it up as Cruella, what's not to like? Well, there is one big problem. The film feels thoroughly Disney-fied as London is a sleepy snowy city a minute's drive from the countryside where an American is designing video games while the English are too preoccupied with looking down their noses at people. In short, it's as though nobody involved in the production had ever been to England or had only seen London in other Disney films like Mary Poppins (5). It might not have been so bad if this was something other than a simple blend of the aforementioned Home Alone and Babe (6) but once the rescue is on, the film grinds to a halt. Dialogue is reduced to people shouting either "Bring me those puppies!" or "There's one - get him!" while the animals run about the place seemingly unsupervised.
Of course, comparisons with the original animated version are inevitable but I'm afraid that this version doesn't do too well here either. It lacks the magic the original had and worse still, this modern version feels completely redundant. It doesn't bring anything new to the story and instead, concentrates on telling the tale as though we might learn something from it. The only thing I learned that a remake that is a carbon-copy of the original is simply not worth the time.
Should I watch it?
Younger viewers not familiar with the animated version might prefer this updating but generally speaking, this is a shallow and cynical recycling of old material that typifies most Disney films these days. What's tragic is that Close, Laurie and Williams put in good performances in an otherwise worthless film but fans of the original might enjoy this live-action version as well.
Great For: very young children, Close's resume
Not So Great For: hardcore fans of the animated version, people studying Britain's wildlife, abandoned dogs charities
What else should I watch?
Fans of family-friendly slapstick should probably stick to Home Alone which continues to amuse and entertain today. Plus the snow is probably more genuine that it is in this.
Of course, Babe had the good fortune to be released the year before and had the magic of seeing animals performing in great number. The fact that they talk actually helps, for once, as the film concentrates on a little pig convinced that it's a sheepdog and the dialogue helps the viewer understand what's going on. Whereas in 101 Dalmatians, we're left to guess what's being said in various woofs, yelps and barks until the film gets into its stride.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox