First released in 1961, 101 Dalmatians was never the most artful of Disney’s animated features. The characters aren’t as poignant as those in, say, Bambi or Pinocchio. The animated backgrounds lack the tactile lushness the studio has, in recent years, gloriously revived. Yet 101 Dalmatians remains one of the most beloved of all Disney cartoons, and seeing it again on video, I remembered why. There’s the great villainess Cruella De Vil, of course — a skull-faced aristo in white fur who’s like the Wicked Witch of the West reborn as a high-fashion dominatrix. And there’s the great escape our spotted heroes make to London after being kidnapped by Cruella (who wants to stitch their tender hides into the ultimate fur coat). Their voyage through the snowy country has some of the primal pull of Lassie Come Home. The cartoon-surrealist image of all those dalmatians flowing together — a sea of white peppered with dots — feeds our investment in their fate.
101 Dalmatians, Disney’s new live-action version of the classic tale, gets at least one of those memories right. As Cruella, Glenn Close camps with full-tilt extravagance — eyes psychotically wide open, cigarette holder brandished with dictatorial hauteur, ruby-red lips extended in front of her face as she barks out lines like ”I live for fur — I worship fur!” But when it comes to that great puppy pilgrimage, the movie, which was written and produced by John Hughes, falls astoundingly flat. There’s nothing left but knockabout gags (and some pretty lame ones at that). Much of the hollowness can be chalked up to a single disastrous decision: In this version, the dogs don’t talk — mostly, they just sit forlornly in front of the camera. But there’s also a plastic crassness to the proceedings. The meet-cute episode between Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) is inflated into raucous action comedy, as the two crash and spill through a London park. By the time the dogs escape, we’re into the slapstick sadism of the Home Alone series, with the bumbling Horace (Mark Williams) and Jasper (Hugh Laurie) getting punched, smashed, conked, and electrocuted in the crotch, and Cruella dumped into a vat of molasses.
What we’re seeing in 101 Dalmatians is Disney strip-mining its past for profit. This movie, manufactured with calculation rather than love, can exploit our memories of a movie that was made with love. And — bottom line — it’s got all those adorable pups (even if they don’t have personality). At a preview, the kids around me had a revealing reaction. They were often restless, but whenever there was a shot of the dalmatians in all their spotted cuteness, they went, ”Awwwww!” That’s an adult response — a grown-up’s theatrical coo of adoration. This may be the first generation of kids who can turn a movie into a hit because they’ve learned to automatically cheer the ingredients of a hit. C