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'101 Dalmatians': A Little Spotty

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 27, 1996

In Hollywood, imitation is the most profitable form of flattery. That is the only plausible explanation for "101 Dalmatians," Walt Disney's disappointing live-action remake of its own 1961 classic.

The original animated feature is, deservedly, a treasured memory for millions who experienced it in youth and, in innumerable cases, introduced the videotape to their children. But the latest film, produced and written by John Hughes, will never attain such status.

The new "101 Dalmatians," which stars Glenn Close, is energetic, all right. It has a passel of adorable pooches -- although Dalmatians, it turns out, aren't quite as lovable in real life as Disney movies make them out to be. Most notably, it has a bravura performance by Close. As the sinister Cruella De Vil, she crackles with cartoonish villainy. But there isn't a trace of magic to be found in the production.

When Anita (Joely Richardson), who owns a female Dalmatian, marries Roger (Jeff Daniels), a fellow Dalmatian owner, their union becomes multiple. Their dogs -- Pongo and Perdy -- fall in love, too. But when the Dalmatians have their first litter, trouble comes knocking at the door.

Anita's boss, Cruella, a fashion-fur empress, has decided that Dalmatian pelts are in. When Roger and Anita refuse her lucrative offer for all 15 puppies, the infuriated Cruella dispatches a couple of hoodlums (Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams) to steal the dogs.

In both movies, this is the point where the dogs take over the story. Thanks to a network of farm animals and dogs, Pongo and Perdy discover their offspring and make a rescue attempt. But in the latest movie, the animals (with a few minor exceptions) are neither animated nor animatronic. Given the tremendous success of "Babe," in which animatronic sheep and pigs were used brilliantly, it's bewildering that Disney didn't take advantage of such superb technology.

Instead, we're obliged to watch a menagerie of real critters that, sweet as they are, don't have the entertainment value of their artificially created counterparts. The long-winded second half, featuring the Dalmatians' escape from the two goony gangsters (who seem to have stumbled off the set of "Home Alone"), promises to be a trying time for impatient young viewers.

Even the extensive Hughes-style slapstick feels unnecessarily tedious and cruel. I caught myself feeling pity for Cruella when a horse (one of the few animatronic creations) heaved her through a barn door. Hughes and director Stephen Herek (whose credits include "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," "The Mighty Ducks" and "Mr. Holland's Opus") have created an ultimately wearying banality, in which the differences between old and new are starkly depressing.

In the original, for instance, Roger is a rumpled, pipe-smoking songwriter whose prime instrument is the piano -- you know, that non-digital instrument. As he plays, his wonderfully oversize foot taps rhythmically on the floor. He's a romantic, bumbling, sympathetic creation.

But in the Hughes-Herek offering, Jeff Daniels's Roger designs computer games for teenagers. His dream is to invent an electronic game suitably appealing to a generation of computer-generation kids. The kid who road-tests his various attempts is the kind of unappealing teenage monster you usually find in, well, John Hughes movies. At this point, you realize what the folks at Disney forgot to program into their new movie: charm.

101 Dalmatians is rated G. It contains implications about animal skinning, and a scary villain, that could be alarming to some children.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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