101 Dalmatians

(Stephen Herek, USA, 1996)


This is an almost perverse Hollywood High Concept: a live action remake of the beloved Disney animation One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961 – the difference in title format is Disney’s affectation, not mine). Why? We know, post-Babe (1995), that animals are again potential big bucks at the family-oriented box-office. And producer-writer John Hughes (Weird Science, 1985) may have felt that, the fewer special effects and surreal gimmicks used to present animals on screen, the more natural and lovable they are.


So the dogs in this 101 Dalmatians are without voices, thought-tracks or excessively psychological mannerisms. They are extremely civilised creatures who appear to understand every word of human speech, but essentially their charm derives from the normal ways they bark, run, hide and piddle.


There is a plot to enclose this homely – but expensively mounted – spectacle of the animal kingdom. Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson), both proud dalmatian owners, meet, fall in love and marry. Anita’s haste in giving up her career as a fashion designer angers her flamboyant boss, Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close), who vows to round up a bunch of dalmatians and kill them for fur.


As in Babe, this is a slightly scary premise. But not to worry – the closest thing to screen violence here is the unending, burlesque torture inflicted on two bumbling crooks played engagingly by Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams (shades here of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Hughes’ popular Home Alone series).


Close has obviously developed a recent taste for fruity histrionics, as evidenced by her role here and in Mary Reilly (1996). As the make-up, costumes and hairstyling become more exaggerated and grotesque in each new film, Close contorts her body and warps her voice in ways that recall Robert Mitchum’s bravura performance in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).


In fact, the promotional poster for this film reviews it perfectly: it shows Close in a black, white and red extravaganza, and a selection of cute puppies on her shoulders and at her feet. Nothing else in the story really matters – not the half-hearted love intrigue, not the knockabout villains, not the obligatory moral lessons. Only the animals, and a splendidly demonic woman, enthrall us kids of all ages.


MORE Herek: Rock Star

© Adrian Martin December 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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