101 Dalmatians (1996); 102 Dalmatians (2000)

One dog can break a franchise's back.


In Lady and the Tramp, we have the famous meatball scene. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we whistled while we worked. And in 101 Dalmatians-- especially in the 1996 live action remake of the animated 1961 classic-- we have the dog version of the Amber Alert. As proud Dalmatian parents Pongo and Perdy go on the rescue for their fifteen kidnapped pups, they enlist the aid of not just every dog in London but sheep, rodents, and every other animal within hearing range as they track down the paw prints of both the pups and their ruthless captors.

In grand Disney tradition, Cruella De Vil played by Glenn Close — who went from boiling rabbits in Fatal Attraction to designing a dog fur coat in this film — masterminded the plan as the most evil female villain since the Wicked Witch of the West. Of course, De Vil’s two henchmen played by Hugh Laurie (pre-House) and Mark Williams receive their comeuppance in the end, thanks to an endless retread of gross-out gags, pratfalls, wasted slapstick, electric shock, and groin hits courtesy of screenwriter John Hughes. Obviously, borrowing heavily from his own screenplay for the Home Alone films as countless critics and viewers have noted and complete with making one of the stooges the brainier of the two simpletons (Laurie is cast essentially in Joe Pesci's role), the film's overly long and juvenile second half bogs it down considerably from its delightful opening.

At its best when it delivers us a story and at its worst when it replaces logic with a vat of molasses (don't ask), the film begins ever so charmingly. Moments in, we're introduced to Roger (Jeff Daniels), a struggling video game designer who keeps getting sent back to the drawing board by his company's precocious, child taste-maker. Living a simple, pleasant life with his best friend, Roger spends his days with his literal caretaker Pongo, a Dalmatian so devoted to Roger that he not only fetches the paper but makes his master's coffee, readies his shower, and gets him up in the morning. However, soon Pongo and Roger find their limited existence livened up when they make the acquaintance of two females, namely the beautiful Anita (Joely Richarson) and her own Dalmatian, Perdy. Obviously as a Disney product, the foursome meets cute in the park as the humans are tugged along by their dogs via bicycle. Although, because it's Disney by way of Hughes, sure enough, they land smack into the filthy pond and Daniels gets struck with a purse full of bricks in the process. Still, Roger and Anita and likewise Pongo and Perdy are irresistible together, reminding me of the fine, wholesome, smart, and contemporary Disney updates of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday (made before Lindsay Lohan discovered clubbing).

Intriguingly, eventually 101 plays sort of like a silent movie, making it exceptionally appealing to children as the second half of the film is mostly all visual with the bare minimum of dialogue (not to mention it's refreshingly free of celebrity voices). Despite this, the true star of the film isn't Daniels or Richardson nor those precious puppies but the incomparable, Golden Globe nominated Glenn Close.

Launching into her role with a fierce tenacity and seemingly without fear of playing it as high camp, Close immediately reminded me along with several other reviewers (including Roger Ebert) of Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. With her gleefully sinister cackle, her spontaneous shouts, her absurd facial expressions and terrifying aura, Close attacks the role with a tendency towards scenery chewing but one that makes the film distinctly her own. It’s easy to notice the way she completely dominates the film in the clip below which contains arguably one of the greatest villain introductions of the 90's.

Cruella's Intro

And it's no wonder the comparison to Desmond was first and foremost in viewers' minds as after a little digging, I discovered that Close starred in the film following the conclusion of her Broadway stint in Sunset Boulevard. While Close owns the role, undoubtedly a great deal of her transformation in getting the actress into the right frame of mind came directly from the physical transformation courtesy of the gifted wardrobe and makeup department as you can see below.

Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil

Recently released on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, the film was given a gorgeous digital transfer that really makes the visuals pop especially in the nighttime scenes near the finale. Although the sole extra feature on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, the widescreen digitally re-mastered and Dolby Digital equipped DVD reveals plenty of sneak peeks at other DVD offerings (including an awesome preview of the upcoming Sleeping Beauty anniversary edition). Additionally offering the opportunity to watch the film in English, French or Spanish, Mr. Holland's Opus and The Mighty Ducks director Stephen Herek's 101 Dalmatians also includes closed captioning for the hearing impaired.

Similar features are also available for the live action sequel, Enchanted director Kevin Lima's 2000 film 102 Dalmatians, also re-mastered and re-released on DVD from Walt Disney. However, while the age of the first and far superior version possibly prevented the disc from coming with bonus features, perhaps in order to make up for a truly awful film, 102 Dalmatians is packed with featurettes, commentary and even interactive DVD-Rom opportunities sure to appeal to the puppy lover in all of us. Although this time around, the writer John Hughes, director Stephen Herek as well as stars Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Brenda Blethyn, and Hugh Laurie were smart enough to pass on the gimmicky sequel, unfortunately the same couldn't be said for Glenn Close.

In 102, it's the Glenn Close show all the way and like Nora Desmond, she finally receives her close-up throughout as she's the only redeeming quality in the nearly unwatchable film. Having been rehabilitated after three years in prison by an unorthodox conditioning method courtesy of Dr. Pavlov, Cruella has transferred her hatred for the “little beasts” into puppy love. That is until the sound of the Pavlovian bell (aka Big Ben) goes off and-- like a switch being flipped-- she's up to her old tricks, longing once again for her spotted Dalmatian fur coat, this time with a stylish hood.

Setting her sights on the Dalmatians owned by her parole officer Chloe (Alice Evans), De Vil turns to one faithful henchman and one new one. Tom McInnerny reprises his role as her dutiful sycophantic and long-suffering sidekick, Alonzo (Tom McInnerny) but Gerard Depardieu joins the party as the bizarre furrier Jean-Pierre Le Pelt, who reminded me of a strange cross between a predecessor to Derek Zoolander, blended with 80’s era musicians Billy Idol and A Flock of Seagulls. Much like De Vil herself, Le Pelt seems to be yet another surprisingly fetishistic character. And due to the increasingly strange behavior of the villains, the film's heroes never fail to hold our interest, looking as bland as the white fur on the film's poor, sad Dalmatian Oddball, who doesn't fit in with the rest because he has no spots.

While 101 Dalmatians made suitable if uneven fare for the whole family-- despite its frightening band of hopeful dog killers-- 102 seems aimed directly at the much younger set. Obviously unfamiliar with the phrase “less is more” and learning nothing from the overly long Home Alone styled finale of the original film, 102 piles on the juvenile shenanigans. Soon De Vil is in yet another vat until she’s baked as a cake (in Paris no less) while the puppies exact a gross food fight for revenge and all to the delight of the preschool through kindergarten set and the chagrin of anyone older than seven (yet I'd hesitate to put this on for toddlers). Still, Close looks like she's having a ball but by now the shtick is tired and in dire need of some shaking up.

Although the handsome Ioan Gruffudd rivals the puppies for the most adorable sight onscreen, despite a few feeble attempts for cuteness as his character and Evans' reenact Lady and the Tramp, it ignores the humans all together in favor of 102's preferred heroes Oddball and Waddlesworth (voiced by Eric Idle), a macaw who thinks he's a Rottweiler. With such a reliance on suspending our disbelief and a talking bird no less, the overly animated, campy and farcical 102 seems like it would've been better off as an animated film altogether. Of course, that would mean we would miss Glenn Close but at least we'd have 101 to fall back on. (View the Trailers for 101 and 102)

Note: Incidentally, an unrelated animated sequel to the original animated classic was also released on DVD this month. Although I didn't have the chance to review, I'd feel safe in venturing a guess that it's probably preferable to this grating unequivocal mess better suited for a doggie bag than a DVD.