101 Dalmatians

on January 25, 1961 by Kim Williamson
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Aptly enough, John Hughes' script is based on the Dodie Smith novel "The One Hundred and One Dalmatians," and not on the original animated version. That Disney classic still has the fifth biggest boxoffice (in adjusted dollars) of any film ever, and one reason for that moviegoer response was an appreciation of the wonderfully personal voices that the puppies, their dad Pongo and mom Perdy, and sundry other animal participants possessed. Here, in their most questionable decision, director Stephen Herek (working closer to his "The Mighty Ducks" territory than that of his recent "Mr. Holland's Opus") and writer/producer John Hughes (who again provides numerous "Home Alone" moments) have decided that their critters won't speak. The animals do have limited communication abilities--via barks, moos and whinnies. But if (for example) a pair of raccoons here are sufficiently advanced to know and execute a low-five after a successful prank, why not give them those audience-heart-winning oral abilities that worked for the pups 35 years ago and more recently helped make the similarly live-action "Babe" a breakout hit? In de-animating "101 Dalmatians," its creators have also significantly lowered the animation of its emotional levels; we're watching the puppies' world, we're not in their world.
Not helping matters is a tedious second half (this film version runs 103 minutes, telling the same story that fit perfectly before in 79) that concludes with a climax so underpowered only its placement at movie's end clues the audience in to its nature. Whereas the first portion begins with a bang--the character setups are perfect for Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close, right on target with her society-woman evil, wanting the pups' fur for a coat) and the dog-loving couple who (too quickly) become husband and wife, Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson)--in the latter section the three human leads, plus Pongo and Perdy, virtually disappear. In their wake are mostly indiscriminate puppies, nameless barnyard denizens and bumbling burglars Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams), a duo that undergo a sequence of bonk, slip and splash catastrophes.
Nonetheless, the beloved vintage title and the Disney imprimatur virtually guarantee tremendous ticket sales. Youngsters are likely to find the ongoings more on than off, although the littlest among them--unlike their parents, who can fill in the animals' vocal blanks from their memories of the original--might become lost when "101 Dalmatians" becomes almost a silent movie. (Theatre ushers can expect to hear parents whispering to the young 'uns, "See, when the animals make noises, they're talking to each other.") For adults, this "101 Dalmatians"--even if it's more library asset maximization than real moviemaking--provides a fitfully entertaining cruise across three decades back to their own childhoods, even if the film's final emotional impact for them will lack that wonderful resonance of Walt Disney of old. Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson and Joan Plowright. Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by John Hughes. Produced by John Hughes and Ricardo Mestres. A Buena Vista release. Comedy. Rated G. Running time: 103 min
Tags: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Directed by Stephen Herek, Written by John Hughes, Ricardo Mestres, A Buena Vista release, Comedy, animals, emotional, tedious, puppies
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