In the post-Babe era, can you make a live-action movie about animals and not have them talk to each other? For me, this is the deep philosophical question raised by Disney's new 101 Dalmatians, a live-action remake of the studio's 1961 animated feature--in which, by the way, the animals did speak. The decision here to mute the Dalmatians--along with the sheepdogs and cows and pigs and all the other critters--is kind of eerie. The animals may scamper and squeal and yowl, but because we can't hear what's going in their little critter noggins, they seem stifled.
On the other hand, if they could speak like Babe, their dialogue might not be much better than the ho-hum stuff the humans in the film are called on to deliver. Maybe that's why the pooches don't patter--less work for the screenwriters.
In the original Dalmatians, the 101 was spelled out as One Hundred and One, presumably because nobody back then thought words, compared to numbers, were a commercial liability in a movie title. It's not just the title here that's been stripped for speed: The entire remake has been dumb-dumbed by John Hughes, who wrote the script and produced. Since his dramatic features are essentially live-action cartoons anyway, this new Dalmatians isn't exactly a stretch. Still, it must have occurred to the Disney people that handing over one of their most popular titles to the Home Alone guy might boomerang on them.
It hasn't, really. Viewers will be thinking of this less as a Disney movie than as just another clonkfest in Hughes' infinitely mutable oeuvre. It has his trademark rowdy slapstick nastiness. The sappy elements in the story are still sappy; the scary stuff is much more brain-drilling.
As in the original, Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) meet cute when their dalmatians, Pongo and Perdy, run circles around each other in a London park. But now Roger is a transplanted American, not a Brit, and he writes children's computer games instead of pop songs. This reinforces the idea that the movie itself is a species of destructo video game--as if we needed the prompt. Look out for the CD-ROM.
Roger and Anita tie the knot; so do Pongo and Perdy, who delight their owners and nanny (Joan Plowright) by producing 15 pups. Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close), who in this version is a fashion tycoon and Anita's boss, still wants the pups for a stole, but in addition to her lackeys Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams), Hughes also has her in cahoots with an animal skinner (played by the appropriately named John Shrapnel) whose throat was ripped out years ago by hounds. He too is mute, just like the dalmatians.
The pups are put through an entire spin cycle of mayhem. But then, of course, Cruella and her guys get theirs: She's dunked in a vat of molasses, while Jasper and Horace are royally zapped by an electrical current and the skinner is kerplopped. You keep waiting for Macaulay Culkin--or the new homunculus Hughes has chosen as Culkin's Home Alone 3 replacement--to roll in and deliver a few well-placed kicks to the groin.
The casting of the humans here is shrewd. As Roger, Jeff Daniels is appropriately schleppy. He's been featured alongside critters before--spiders in Arachnophobia, geese in Fly Away Home, Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Playing opposite a fleet of mutts is no stretch for him; he doesn't even look fazed when he's upstaged. As the nanny, Plowright is doing her fluffy mother-hen routine again, and Laurie and Williams are like cartoon meanies come to life.
Director Stephen Herek last gave us Mr. Holland's Opus, in which, as the decades wore on, Richard Dreyfuss seemed to acquire the cuddly contours of a koala bear. So Dalmatians may not be exactly a stretch for Herek either. It just expands his range in the animal kingdom. (It's the human kingdom he needs to work on.)
Glenn Close is in her element as Cruella. She'd better watch it--if she continues playing to a T these voracious harridans, someone may get the idea she really is one. And that would be wrong. The 1961 Cruella was outfitted in skunky duds, but here, with costumes designed by Anthony Powell, she's the Belle of Bad. Whether she's in chain mail, feathers, or leather, Cruella's corseted, stilettoed angularity is the closest this film gets to being a live-action cartoon triumph.
And that's a shame, because Herek had a chance to top the original: The 1961 Dalmatians, after all, wasn't exactly top-rank Disney animation. It had a deliberately rough-sketch look that seemed...well...sketchy. It also used a Xeroxing process to multiply the number of dalmatians without actually having to draw them, which led Chuck Jones over at Warners to comment, "Of course, only the Disney studio would think of doing a hundred and one spotted dogs. We have trouble doing one spotted dog."
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The dogs in the new Dalmatians are actually a step up from their animated forebears--for the simple reason that cute-real usually outpoints cute-fake. Besides, all that relentlessly cuddly anthropomorphism in the animated feature was way too gooey. The cuddliness is still over the line in the live-action film, but the pups, except for a few impostors dropped in from Jim Henson's workshop, are at least cute for real. They all deserve special Oscars.
Still, I would like to have seen a less sanitized pupdom. Disney has always been squeamish about implying that critters--animated or otherwise--have bodily functions or sex organs. (The same could be said for their treatment of humans.) In the '50s, the studio actually got in trouble with the New York State Board of Censors for its nature documentary The Vanishing Prairie, in which a buffalo was shown giving birth.
We don't actually see Perdy giving birth in Dalmatians--OK, I can live without that. But it might have helped if the dogs in this film actually did what dogs do. It's one thing for Disney to hold back. But John Hughes too? Why no sniffing and peeing and dry-humping? This is the '90s, guys. Kids don't like their video games squeaky clean.
101 Dalmatians. Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright. Written by John Hughes, based on the book The One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. Directed by Stephen Herek. Now showing.