Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Out, Out Damn Spot!: "101 Dalmatians" (1996)

Disney plumbs the depths of their overrated animation and creates a one hundred minute commercial for their dalmatian products.

Glenn Close perfectly embodies Cruella DeVil. She is the fashion designing boss of Anita (Joely Richardson). Roger (Jeff Daniels) has a dalmatian, like Anita, but he is unsuccessful as a video game designer- living in that hotbed of video game designing- London.

Anita and Roger meet overly cute, and their dogs Pongo (his) and Perdy (hers) fall in love, too. Anita and Roger marry, and get pregnant. Pongo and Perdy marry, and get pregnant. Poor Perdy squeezes out fifteen puppies, under the watchful, slumming eye of Joan Plowright, playing Nanny.

Cruella returns and offers to buy the puppies. She was inspired by one of Anita's designs and plans to make a giant fur coat out of dalmatian puppies. She and her henchmen have been collecting puppies, and these final fifteen will give her her frock. Anita and Roger do not sell.

The puppies are dognapped by henchmen Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams), who look exactly like their animated counterparts from the better Disney film. The very long finale is one giant rescue scene, as the puppies are helped by other animals to escape, with Cruella, the henchmen, and a psychotic mute taxidermist named Skinner (John Shrapnel) on their collective tails.

Screenwriter John Hughes apes his "Home Alone" ingredient of having grown men injured by cute creatures so often, I though I was watching an unofficial sequel. Director Stephen Herek is no Chris Columbus, however. While Columbus can direct (usually), Herek is all over the place, not quite sure what he should be capturing in order to double over the audience with laughter. The scene where Anita and Roger meet after wrecking their bikes thanks to their runaway dogs is milked for all it is worth and runs way too long. The editing is not tight, as Herek switches back and forth between multiple cameras, and capturing extreme close-ups of "funny business" instead of just letting the actors be funny.

Daniels and Richardson get lost in the shuffle, making no impression on the audience whatsoever. Glenn Close is just right for the part, with some amazing costumes and hair, but she seems reined in as well. The film makers cannot decide if their audience is innocent children or their tired parents. Some of the dialogue is harsh, like the villains' plans for the puppies, but that is offset by sugar coating too many scenes (including the finale).

There are also a couple of clips from other Disney films in the movie, but this does not seem like an inside joke so much as free advertising for other Disney videos.

In the end, "101 Dalmatians" fails to deliver on its intent. Close almost breaks free from the shackles of marketing mediocrity, but the real loser here is the audience. The puppies are adorable as hell, though. (* *) out of five stars.