Courtesy Photo
Directed by Stephen Herek

Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joley Richardson, Joan Plowright and Hugh Laurie.

This film is on the Worst of 1996 list.

"101 Dalmatians"

Opened: November 27, 1996 | Rated: G

Maybe live action remakes of classic cartoons aren't such a good idea after all.

What could be cuter than rehashing "101 Dalmatians" with real puppies, execs at Disney must have though. Cast as Cruella DeVil some wonderful actress who can play over-the-top like nobody's business and the film will write itself.

But for all its potential, and all the excitement and energy shot forth in the previews, "101 Dalmatians" is as flat as the paper the script was typed on.

In this update Pongo, the father Dalmatian, is owned by a video game designer (Jeff Daniels) who's having a hard time inventing a villain for his new doggie game. He's failed twice to pass muster with his easily bored 8-year-old boss. (Gee, I wonder how that storyline will end.)

Perdy, the mother Dalmatian, belongs to a fashion designer (Joley Richardson) who works for Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close), the evil, endangered pelt-wearing mistress of a London couture house who cherishes the idea of a puppy skin coat.

On hearing Close was cast as DeVil, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part. But she is given, at best, insipid Saturday morning cartoon dialogue by screenwriter/producer John Hughes ("Look Who's Talking" and all those Molly Ringwald movies from the 1980s) and very little direction from Stephen Henek ("Mr. Holland's Opus"). She is, if you'll pardon the pun, off her leash.

As a result all she does throughout the picture is scream wildly about the horrible things she's going to do to the puppies before subsequently being knocked into various mud puddles and vats of goo by adorable animals.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As the film opens, Pongo and Perdy spot each other while being walked in a park and drag their owners along on a chase that leads to all parties falling in love. In practically the very next scene the humans get married and the Perdy has puppies -- 15 to be exact.

After a visit from Cruella in which she pets the puppies and goes gaga over their soft fur, the groundwork set for a clumsy dog-napping and an hour of unengaging chases involving Perdy's litter, 86 other missing pups and a Cruella's stooge henchmen, Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams (best known in the States for the BBC imports "Black Adder" and "Red Dwarf," respectively).

Somehow, despite all the puppies running amuck, shopworn sight gags and an encouraging soundtrack, these scenes have no energy, no panache. At the advance screening I heard two kids ask to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie. If that doesn't say it all, I don't know what does.

"101 Dalmatians" is thick with "awww" moments that quickly turn to "oh, brother" (one puppy is stillborn but miraculously comes to life when Daniels holds him). It's also plagued by loopholes that might make little difference in a cartoon, but with live actors seem insultingly simple-minded (why does it take Daniels and Richardson the entire picture to figure out Cruella took the puppies when to Pongo and Perdy have it sussed in the first reel?).

If only director Herek had rubbed up against the creative production designer, Assheton Gorton, "101" might have lived up to its looks.

The sets in this picture are incredible. Cruella's office looks like the kind of spooky forest Ichabod Crane might stumble into -- complete with craggy sculptured trees -- and the abandon mansion where the puppies are held is a run-down Xanadu.

Close is a work of art herself. The costumes she wears are reminiscent of some acid-induced Joan Collins shopping spree. She even has fingernails attached to the outside of her gloves.

But, alas, in spite of a grand visual effort, "101 Dalmatians" has no spirit. This movie is a dog.

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