101 Dalmatians (1996)
Release Date: November 27th, 1996 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Stephen Herek Actors: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams, John Shrapnel
oger (Jeff Daniels) is a video game creator in London who struggles with creating an engaging villain for his child-oriented animal project (with animation blatantly resembling that of a certain Disney cartoon). Anita (Joely Richardson) is a talented fashion designer for the House of De Vil, a cold, black-and-white mansion of a building, riddled with harsh corners and sharp sculptures. They bump into each other when their perfectly matched pet Dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, respectively, cause them both to topple into a pond. When Roger and Anita dry off at Roger’s flat, they notice their dogs cuddling by the fire – and do the only thing they can think of to prevent the separation of the Dalmatians. After a proposal that very night, and a swift marriage to follow, all four of them can live happily ever after.
But Anita’s boss, Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close), an insultingly brusque, obnoxiously loud woman garbed in pitch black, blazing white, and piercing crimson (magnificently grand costumes by Rosemary Burrows and Anthony Powell, which change from scene to scene while maintaining the animal-print color scheme, and wild, Two-Face-like hair to match), comes to visit the family when they learn of the upcoming arrival of both a baby and puppies. Caring nothing for human children, Cruella is instead overjoyed at the thought of a litter of young Dalmatians, with their soft, spotted skin – which could make a sensational coat for the fur-obsessed woman. When Roger and Anita refuse to sell the newborns (even for the outrageous sum of 7500 pounds), Cruella hires scruffy thugs Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams) to steal them when the nanny (Joan Plowright) is alone with the lot.
Now that the Dalmatians are live action, they’re unrealistically intelligent – which is a daring stretch considering the creatures from the original 1961 animated film could speak English. Pongo can work a computer, turn on a coffee pot, start up a shower, and open the door to grab a bottle of milk. The famous “Twilight Bark” scene is still effective, but the story is adapted differently to accommodate the lack of direct communication between the various animal actors. Extensive barking and visual cooperation take the place of dialogue; despite the momentary bits of awkwardness (which will seem very farfetched to viewers unfamiliar with the source material), it’s amusing to see real animals working together, sans language (and equally as hilarious when plainly visible puppets or shoddy CG are employed for particularly challenging dog undertakings).
But it’s Glenn Close who is easily the most notable element of the production, looking the part about as ideally as imaginable. Unfortunately, her acting is so exaggerated that it’s difficult to admire the character – one whose deviousness and mercilessness can’t come across as anything but comically insincere when Close cackles maniacally with a wide grin and a brightly painted face. It’s still a great part for the actress, even though she screams most of her lines – as well as for sidekicks Laurie and Williams, who closely resemble the roles of Harry and Marv from “Home Alone,” bumbling ineptly as they give chase to fleeing puppies while combating borderline lethal booby-traps. Slapstick, stunts, and plenty of cute animal faces round out the adventure in this mildly entertaining twist on a classic Disney animated masterpiece.
– Mike Massie