Doggone it, this movie has gotten a bad rap.
There, I've said it.
But when I first saw the live-action version of "101 Dalmatians," I had the same response as other Disney purists: Why? While the animated classic was warm and engaging, this G-rated movie starring Glenn Close as Cruella DeVil scared the bejeesus out of my son, who was four at the time. And how could live action possibly capture the complexity that animation had to offer? The rich backgrounds, the voiceover doggie narration, the swervy DeVil car as it plowed through the snow, the cuteness of all those spotted puppies--make it real, and some of the magic is bound to evaporate.
So I was disappointed by this film when I first saw it (though certainly not as much as I was by "Scooby-Doo" or "Casper" or other live-action mutilations of beloved cartoons). But a funny thing happened over time. I watched it again, with my children now old enough to not be scared, and darned if I didn't think it was pretty well done. In fact, I'd venture to say now that if this film had been released as a live-action original instead of an animated feature remake, it would have been better received. It suffers from comparison to the wonderful 1961 animated classic. But compared to the sequel, "102 Dalmatians," it looks positively brilliant. It's all who you stand next to, and I think that too many critics had animation on the brain when they reviewed this one.
John Hughes ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Home Alone") wrote the screenplay, and this wise man decided NOT to have talking live-action dogs--which means there's no doggie narrative voiceover, either. But it stood to reason that if Timmy's mom could get "Timmy's in the well?" from a few Lassie barks, we'd get the point here without much effort. When the dogs are kidnapped and the message is relayed across a network of barking dogs and other critters, it's as smooth and comprehensible as if they had gone the "Dr. Doolittle" route . . . and far less grating.
Though Close plays it over-the-top--Doesn't being a Disney villain demand a certain outrageousness?--the rest of the cast stays fairly grounded in reality and the type of relationship and situational warm humor that's typical of Hughes' films. The premise may be slightly outlandish, but the writing is so down-to-earth and the bulk of the characters so normal and appealing that you buy into it.
Here, it's just DeVil and her henchmen--Hugh Laurie ("House") and Mark Williams ("Harry Potter")--and a skinner named Skinner (John Shrapnel) who are played for laughs. Which is to say, Hughes' screenplay actually stays pretty close to the original animated script. It's well-written, too, and strikes just the right tone.
Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson make for a likeable Roger and Anita, two Dalmatian lovers who are brought together because of their dogs. Here, though, Roger is a video game designer, and Cruella doesn't just have a fur fetish--she's also head of a fashion empire that specializes in fur creations, with Anita unintentionally setting the whole plot in motion when she draws an outfit that has spotted fur. After that, Ms. DeVil sets her dognappers to work collecting Dalmatians, among them poor Roger and Anita's 15 puppies.
The animal sequences are fluid and believable, without Hughes or director Stephen Herek ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure") pushing it so far that you feel they're milking the furry situation. From start to finish, the film never sags and never makes you feel as if it's wandered off into the land of the dumb. That's an achievement, really, when you're trading in cartoon humor, and Hughes and Herek ought to get the credit they deserve for finding a way to win despite the no-win situation of adapting animation for live action.
Disney has gotten quite good at delivering high-quality pictures in standard definition. "101 Dalmatians" is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions, and it features bright, vibrant colors and some very nice edge detail for a DVD.
The audio is a robust Dolby Digital 5.1, available in English, French, or Spanish. No subtitles. Bass is strong, and the effects speakers are put to good use. Some of the front channel effects seem a little startling in terms of how close the sound appears to the source, but aside from that it's a nice presentation all the way around.
Since this is a reissue, and other recent Disney reissues have had a single game at least to make it attractive, this release has only the theatrical trailer. That's it.
In retrospect, despite the G rating I wouldn't show this one to any child under age six (first grade). The cartoon version works well enough with younger viewers, but save this one for older children who can appreciate the Hughes and Herek blend of reality and stylized exaggeration. It may not be as magical as the animated version, but it's still a very good family movie. Parents will appreciate that it introduces animals without all the inane silliness or scatological humor that too often results. And when Jasper and Horace, those henchmen you love to hate, get theirs, it's like "Home Alone" all over again.
You don't want to mess with John Hughes.