Directed by Stephen Herek. Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams, John Schrapnel. (1996, G, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., Nov. 29, 1996
At least a couple of times every month, the dogs in my neighborhood start barking at each other. “Hey! Here comes that meter reader!” or “Hey, that's not our regular mailman.” Now, if the dog down the street howls, “Get out of my yard, you #$%&* cat!”, my dog might woof a little canine encouragement. But mostly she'll just cock an ear for a moment and go back to sleep. After all, territorially speaking, that cat's not really any of her concern. Which is how I know that dogs talk. That and the fact that I've seen Lady and the Tramp, The Fox and the Hound, Homeward Bound, and, of course, 101 Dalmatians. The original, animated version, that is. For in this live-action remake, the animals don't speak, except with their eyes, ears, tails and other appropriate (and eloquent) body parts. It is an interesting approach, and provides a bit of subtlety which this version of the Disney classic is otherwise woefully lacking. Obviously, subtlety needn't be the mainstay of children's movies, but I do think that children are capable of surviving, even enjoying, subtlety and often benefit from having to work at a film a bit. But John (Home Alone) Hughes wrote and produced this movie and proves that he hasn't changed his spots one bit. At times, the film feels like one painful, protracted pratfall. It simply wastes the comedic genius of British comic Hugh Laurie (Jasper) and allows -- indeed, encourages -- Close's excessive vamping. (Her last acting job was in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway and it shows.) Close's DeVil is big and loud, but more twisted and pathetic than scary and funny -- more Norma Desmond than wicked fashion queen. Cruella's outrageous animal garb is great fun to look at but we tend to get only glimpses before the next cut, usually to an extreme close-up of her shrieking crimson lips or to a long-shot silhouette of her exhorting the heavens in tortured, silent-movie posturing. Cruella's criminal cohorts are the just plain creepy Skinner (Schrapnel), a Mengele-like taxidermist, and the two stooges, Jasper and Horace (Williams). There seems an uneasy blend of scary depravity and blundering buffoonery, not to mention an inordinate amount of head-bopping and eye-poking, in this picture. Admittedly, the kids in the audience (my bunch included) loved every slapstick minute of it. But I pined for more scenes with the dogs, more of that sweet, silly Disney magic so evident in the animated version. The ingredients are here. Daniels and Richardson make an amiable and attractive Roger and Anita. Plowright is a perfect Everynanny. It has a lovely, snowy English setting. The puppies are excruciatingly endearing and the dogs are wonderfully keen and communicative -- when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, this 101 Dalmatians has a lot of bite and far too little bark.