101 Dalmatians (1996)    0 Stars

“So many dogs. So little time.”

101 Dalmatians (1996)

Director: Stephen Herek

Cast: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson

Synopsis: A woman kidnaps puppies to kill them for their fur, but various animals then gang up against her and get their revenge in slapstick fashion.

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It doesn’t take a genius to spot the hand of John Hughes at work when watching this update of Disney’s classic 1961 cartoon, 101 Dalmations. The man has essentially turned in the same screenplay with a few superficial alterations every couple of years since 1990’s Home Alone, and it’s a terrible injustice that the career of the film’s storyline goes from strength to strength while that of its star — Macaulay something — has faltered and died. This habitual regurgitation on the part of Hughes would be bad enough had Home Alone been anything like a good film, but the fact that it was nothing more than a live action cartoon without the laughs simply makes all those re-workings all the more unpalatable.

Culkin’s role here is taken by 99 Dalmatian puppies that have been kidnapped by Cruella De Vil (an enjoyably over-the-top Glenn Close — Air Force One) who intends to turn them into one big coat. Fifteen of the pups are the offspring of Pongo and Perdita, the pets of Roger (Jeff Daniels — 2 Days in the Valley, The Lookout) and Anita (Joely Richardson — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who works as a clothes designer for De Vil. The puppies are aided by an alliance of pretty much every member of the UK’s animal kingdom, however, as they escape the clutches of Cruella’s talons thanks to the bungling ineptitude of hapless henchmen Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams) and from the surgical instruments of the evil Skinner (geddit?) played by John Shrapnel.

Given that the film is clearly aimed at pre-teen kids — girls, mostly, judging from its overly cute nature — it is probably a bit churlish to be too critical of 101 Dalmatians. But the best kids films appeal to adults too, whereas 101 Dalmatians will bore anyone over the age of 13 and seems too content to lapse into an endless stream of slapstick incidents involving Jasper and Horace from the halfway mark. Laurie and Williams try their best with the material they are given, and neither needs to prove to the public that they are talented comic actors, but their talents are under-used here in roles that could have stolen the film had they been better written. Close fares better in the showy role of Cruella, although, for some reason, she constantly reminded me of Norma Desmond, the faded movie star from Sunset Blvd. Neither Daniels nor Richardson can overcome the blandness of their characters, and are relegated to supporting roles by the movies mid-point. And they all battle futilely against the director’s determination to win the audience over with the sheer cuteness of the puppies (a mix of real and animated) and a horribly over-the-top soundtrack.

The Britain depicted in the film bears little relation to the real place — another example of how Americans believe the country to be rather than how it actually is, I guess. It seems as though the makers were trying for a taste of the era in which the original film was made rather than the present day so, even though Roger is a computer games designer, modern technology is kept to a minimum. I was half-expecting to see some extra walking past the screen in a bowler hat at any time. And the sight of a battery of police cars responding to a report of stolen puppies will no doubt have raised a wry smile on the face of anyone in Britain whose only memento of reporting a crime to the police is the crime number with which they were issued when they made the call.

This may keep very young children entertained, but everyone else will be better off sticking with the original.

(Reviewed 31st October 2005)