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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

101 Dalmatians (1996)



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Since the original animated 101 Dalmatians is one of my all-time favorite Disney films, it's therefore only natural that I'd find little things to nitpick at in this live action remake. Jeff Daniels, for instance, would have been better off delivering his humorous lines a little less sarcastically, and more in the manner of a shy, unsure leading man. Glenn Close, for another instance, might have made her voice purr and slither a little more when talking to Anita ("Anita, DARrrrling..."). Yet, what is the purpose of a remake if you're going to do it all the same? And how can a live-action film possibility recapture the image and spirit of a celebrated animated classic? There is one inaccuracy that genuinely hurts the live action remake: the dogs don't talk, and Pongo doesn't narrate the story. Granted, unless Pongo's narration were done with the same English sophistication and refinement as it was in the original, it'd have been worse than no narration at all, coming off, perhaps, as a substandard Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey followup. Yet silencing the dogs severely limits the expression of their personalities (and it shows) and shifts the focus of the film away from the dogs, toward the humans. However, this point aside, screenwriter John Hughes and director Stephen Herek have done surprisingly well in adapting the original for live action. This is about as close to animation as a live action film can get. Cruella de Vil, in particular, emerged almost untainted in the transition. She is easily one of the greatest villains, if not the greatest villain, from any Disney animated film, and it's gratifying to see her character again. Not only is she deliciously evil (yet not gratuitously malicious), but her dramatic character is such a twisted delight, from her lust for furs to her hysterical cackle to her chain smoking to her frenzied driving. All said trademarks make their welcome way in to the live action film essentially unaltered. (Happily, one of the original's most memorable images also makes it into the live action film: Cruella, driving her extravagant vehicle slowly down back roads, hanging her head low out the window, and gawking at puppy prints in the snow.) But Glenn Close's wonderfully unhinged performance deserves the majority of the credit; it is doubtful any other actress could have done better, or even as well. Anyhow, forgiving the minor irritations that fans of the original film will pick up on, this version of 101 Dalmatians starts promising and ends up being an awful lot of fun. Jim and Anita are endearing (no pun intended), the dogs are cute, Cruella wicked, and her henchman humorously inept. We may know by heart the whole set up for the plot, yet in no way does this detract from the joy of watching it unfold. Fond memories of the original and the both clever and endearing variations on the story should keep any but the most miserly in the audience pleasantly entertained. This makes it all the more regretful when the film falls flat on its face in the last twenty minutes. The climax is played for slapstick pratfalls instead of suspense (as John Hughes is painfully susceptible to doing, of late). Even worse, there's no real turning point, no moment of ultimate satisfaction when we know that, though the odds were stacked against our spotted heroes, justice has prevailed. The villains simply take turns falling down until finally somebody decides to end the movie. I like this movie, enough to care deeply when it goes astray, for there is really a fair amount to love. Yet, I cannot give it an unqualified recommendation.

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