Starring-Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson
Scott’s Review #989
Reviewed February 13, 2020
The classic animated Disney film 101 Dalmatians (1961) is brought to life in a live-action format thirty-five years later to create a fresh spin on the revered original film. Unfortunately, the result is nothing special save for Glenn Close’s brilliant performance as the dastardly Cruella De Vil. Otherwise, the reworking is too amateurish and largely unnecessary, especially as compared to the brilliance and charm of the original.
Thankfully not modifying the London setting, American video game designer Roger Dearly (Jeff Daniels) lives with his pet dalmatian, Pong. Lonely, Roger trudges along through life without a love interest. During a walk, Pongo sets his eyes on a beautiful female dalmatian named Perdy. After a chase through the streets of London that ends in St. James’s Park, Roger discovers that Pongo likes Perdy. Her owner, Anita Campbell-Green (Joely Richardson) immediately falls in love with Roger and the duo are inseparable.
They get married along with Perdy and Pongo. Anita works as a fashion designer at the House of de Vil. Her boss, the pampered and glamorous Cruella de Vil (Close), has a passion for fur. Anita, inspired by her Dalmatian, designs a coat made with spotted fur and Cruella is intrigued by the idea of wearing Anita’s dog. She hatches a plot to steal and kill the puppies for her own lavish gain.
The scenes between the dogs are cute and work better than the intended romance relationship between the humans. What was a darling pursuit in the animated feature does not shine through with real actors. Either the chemistry between Daniels and Richardson does not exist or the scene is too forced, or perhaps both. I did not buy the love at first sight, stars aligning moments. I bet most audiences didn’t either. The result is a banal and stale connection between Roger and Anita, meant to be the core of the story.
Enough cannot be said for what Close brings to the role. The actress gives a tremendous performance and sinks her teeth into the most prominent and interesting part of the film. With a sinister sneer, a flowing red and white coat, and a token cigarette holder, she infuses Cruella with dazzling menace. Careful not to overact and result in a juvenile character, she relishes the role, providing just enough comedy without being too scary. The performance is perfect.
A negative is that, unlike the animated version, none of the animals have speaking voices. This detracts from the earnest quality of expressive, talking animals. What pet owner does not imagine what their cat or dog would sound like if they talked? Instead the puppies sniff and look cute, making themselves distracting and unclear what feelings they have. One wonders why the decision was made in this way, but it does little to provide texture.
101 Dalmatians is too cute for its own good, limiting any sophistication. The original had a British intelligence and a cultural voice, with small, yet important details, like falling rain, that live action cannot mimic. The 1996 version is kid-friendly, but brings little to the table, lacking interesting flair. Why not teach a lesson about the dalmatian dog breed rather than settle for simply an adorable slant? Rumors abound that parents adopted dalmatians for their children after seeing the film and were forced to return them, rather than invest time to study, realizing that raising a dalmatian is hard work.
The idea to remake an adorable and cozy Walt Disney classic from the 1960’s with a fresh approach is admirable. The live-action detail could add a new twist or an inventive spin that could appeal to a new generation of youngsters. Unfortunately, 101 Dalmatians (1996) does not work well, barely rising above mediocrity, with an aura of fluff and gimmicks that feel forced and trite. The saving grace is Glenn Close, a tremendous talent who gives it her all despite sub-par material. Stick to the original 1961 version.