A Little SPOTTY Review: '101 Dalmatians' goes halfway toward re-creating the wit of the 1961 cartoon. Then it strays, rolls over and plays dull.

November 27, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"101 Dalmatians" wants to be a great piece of pup fiction, but it finally goes to the dogs -- literally. What remains will probably keep the children from bopping each other, but most parents will begin to drift back into the real world and leave with headaches generated from worrying about the Visa card bill.

That's a shame, because the greatness of the Disney product is that it transcends age and brain development: The classic Disney films were equally diverting to intelligent children or their moronic parents. This one is strictly for the unhousebroken.

A live-action remake of the original 1961 classic, its most pungent stroke is to employ Glenn Close in the famed role of Cruella DeVil, the spot-haunted Lady Macbeth of the Disney canon, possibly his most famous villainess since the Wicked Witch in "Snow White."

Close is perfect for the role, with a history of violent, insane divas behind her, most notably in "Fatal Attraction" and on Broadway in "Sunset Boulevard." In "101 Dalmatians," she doesn't want to out-out those damned spots but off-off them; that is, take them off the backs of the adorable, cuddly five-score pups who wear them and put them onto her own back as the most chic of evening wear. Like, where does she party? Pagan Rome?

Anyhow, with hair half-black and half-white, a makeup base thick as the polar ice cap, nine-inch nails not only on her fingers but her gloves, this Cruella is quite an advertisement for the conceit that the female is the deadlier of the species, a baying sadist who wandered in from one of Jeffrey Dahmer's kinkier dreams or was a bitter reject from a "Batman" sequel.

Cruella, in this edition, is the owner of a London fashion house that loves the fur of endangered species (as if such a thing could exist in a real world in the '90s). She employs delightful Anita (Joely Richardson) as a designer who is married to equally delightful Roger (Jeff Daniels) who are co-owners of Pongo and Perdita, two beautiful dalmatians who between them produce a brood of 15 li'l squiggly cuties.

Cruella espies the pups and thinks: Coat! She tries to buy them in a comic scene where Roger kicks her out, then hires two comic thugs to steal them. That's when the fun stops.

I say it stops because the first half of the movie, the human half, has been delightful. Cruella is much better among humans, playing off other members of her species, and both Daniels and Richardson are excellent foils to her outrageousness, as well as being an extremely likable, attractive couple on their own. They connect; when Cruella slashes in on 11-inch heels and a contempt as huge as Ohio, including all three pretty parts, they ++ bond. Think: Norma Desmond vs. a hip Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and you get the picture. Think wit, not humor; think quips, not falling down; think competing mindsets, not mud-puddle pratfalls.

But at the halfway point, the animals are stolen, and all human forms vanish from the movie, except for Cruella and her minions. At this point, the movie gets boring fast. Most adults will be

thinking: How could I owe them $750 already? I paid just last month.

Actually, the same mechanism takes place in the animated feature, and in a sense at this point the new movie becomes a live-action cartoon -- but it doesn't work. The Disney engineers seem not to recognize the difference in the forms and the different rules they demand obedience to.

In the 35-year-old animated feature, the humans are uninteresting -- bland, generic -- and that movie gets much better after the kidnapping, not worse. That is because the cartoon world is an inversion of the real world. The humans are too stylized to be recognizable or empathetic but the canine mugs are simplified, made more recognizable and given human shape and tone and emotion and voice (Pongo talked in 1961, in the voice of Aussie matinee idol Rod Taylor). Pongo and Perdita were characters; one accepted them as surrogate humans in a surrogate universe; one cared about them.

In this 1996 version, the dogs stay just dogs -- they are dogs,

through a miracle of training and animatronics: They never talk, we have no sense of entering an alternate, unreal but delightful universe. We just see real dogs doing things we know dogs can't do and we can't read their faces or personalities. They're not really characters. They remain inscrutable and have only two expressions: "Feed me" or "Get the hell out of here," usually the former.

This, I believe, accounts for the utter dissatisfaction that is being almost universally ascribed to the film, not its connection to "Home Alone" through co-producer and screenwriter John Hughes. In fact, the original animated feature, with its oafish cartoon violence, may have been more of an influence on "Home Alone" than "Home Alone" was on this picture.

The difference was we believed in a dog society in the first film because the filmmakers went to some length to parody human society. In the modern version, the dogs just start acting really smart and certain of them -- a sheep dog for one -- step forward to dominate the action without having any personality. As spectacle, it's fantastic; as dog worship, it's heaven; as drama, it's stultifying.

'101 Dalmatians'

Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson

Directed by Stephen Herek

Released by Disney

Rated G

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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