Saturday, August 27, 2022

101 Dalmatians (1996)

Note: This review contains spoilers for 101 Dalmatians (1961) and 101 Dalmatians (1996).

Long before Disney’s current stream of unnecessary live-action remakes, they had dabbled in a scant few. One of these was 101 Dalmatians, the 1996 remake of the 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Although this remake evidently did well enough to spawn a sequel, 102 Dalmatians, critics weren’t too fond of it, at least according to the 41% Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which calls it as a “bland and pointless remake” in the critic consensus. Among many other films from the 90s, the live-action 101 Dalmatians is one that I have a vague memory of watching as a young child, but no real memory of the actual content. After watching the original animated film again not too long ago, I felt more in the mood to give the remake a real watch and, to my surprise, it was a bit better than I thought it would be.

The setup for 101 Dalmatians is largely the same as the original film, but with a few key differences. In this version, Roger Dearly (Jeff Daniels) is a video game designer and Anita Campbell-Green (Joely Richardson) is a fashion designer who works for Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close) at the House of DeVil. Along with Horace (Mark Williams) and Jasper (Hugh Laurie), Cruella is also in contact with a taxidermist appropriately named Mr. Skinner (John Shrapnel). Additionally, Anita is in early pregnancy for most of the film’s runtime and unlike how the animated version was mostly told from the perspective of the animals, this version is viewed mostly through the perspective of the humans and, as such, none of the animals talk.

Roger (Jeff Danials, right) and Anita's (Joely Richardson, left) meeting is under
slightly different circumstances, but their romance still blooms.

Alongside the most noticeable changes are numerous smaller deviations from the original film, though these changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as the story still hits many of the same beats one would expect. Since the remake is set in the 90s, when it released, it makes sense to update Roger and Anita’s jobs to better fit the setting and making Cruella Anita’s boss rather than her acquaintance offers more of an explanation for how they would know each other. The addition of Skinner isn’t a bad idea either, since the remake shows more of the human perspective and his presence provides an explanation for how Cruella obtains some of her furs while maintaining her obsession with fur.

Speaking of the animals, the fact that they don’t speak forces more creative interactions between them and, for the most part, it works surprisingly well. Even with a lack of dialogue, you still get a sense that the animals can all communicate with each other and coordinate a plan. That said, the live-action interpretation of the Twilight Bark partly assumes you already know how it works.

One interesting aspect of the film is its positive depiction of video games, especially for the time it released. It doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of game development, but it’s depicted simply as Roger’s chosen career path and him later incorporating Cruella into the game fulfills a similar purpose to him writing the song “Cruella De Vil” in the original film. In fact, with the continued rise of indie developers in the gaming industry, including successful one-man efforts like Undertale, Dust: An Elysian Tail or Minecraft, Roger’s efforts feel more admirable. Although game development is a bit more complicated in real life, especially for a one-man team, it makes sense that the film would only show the parts that are relevant to the story, though it’s good that his workspace still visually acknowledges the other work like concept art he would have put into it. Interestingly, the game Roger develops in the film was later released as an actual retail game, 101 Dalmatians: Escape from DeVil Manor, in 1997.

One of the more interesting pieces of tie-in material.

At its core, 101 Dalmatians feels like a family film, but it never feels frustrating to watch, as here are plenty of laugh out loud moments and the story is still enjoyable in the new medium. Despite the generally more comedic tone, which includes more slapstick that gives the film a mild cartoony feel and a couple moments of unnecessary toilet humor from the puppy Whizzer, I appreciated that the film still wasn’t afraid to acknowledge its darker elements as far as Cruella is concerned. In fact, one could argue that Cruella is even darker in this version thanks to the presence of Mr. Skinner and her cracking a joke about wearing Anita’s dog, Perdita. That said, the ending of the film can come off a bit too cute in its presentation.

Putting the story aside, 101 Dalmatians impresses visually, with great set and costume design, especially for Cruella, and convincing practical effects. Although the House of DeVil sign and Cruella’s license plate make the pun in her name a bit more obvious compared to the original, London feels alive and the countryside buildings feel lived-in, plus having Cruella drive a modified 1976 Panther De Ville is actually a pretty nice touch. Plus, there are some effects that aid the comedic moments, like having lightning temporarily arc off of Horace and Jasper when they get electrocuted. Interestingly, Pongo also has a button that lets him open Roger's front door, which can be viewed as a precursor to the increased use of technology in 101 Dalmatian Street (even though that show's staff had purposefully only watched the original animated film). As great as the effects are, however, the CG employed when the puppies slide down a pipe looks very dated and obvious.

Although the acting isn’t necessarily the best you’ll ever see on film, everyone does a great job with their roles, including Mark Williams and Hugh Laurie as Horace and Jasper respectively. By far the best performance, however, was Glenn Close, who manages to make Cruella intimidating and evil without going too over the top. Huge props as well to the numerous animal trainers, who all managed to make the various animals look coordinated in their efforts and draw out some subtle performances from the hundreds of dogs involved in the production.

Glenn Close does a great job as Cruella De Vil.

As for the music, the score is great while you’re watching the film, but none of the music really stuck out for me, save for the great rendition of “Cruella De Vil” that plays during the credits, even with the increased use of Mickey Mousing. In fact, there’s actually a pretty noticeable difference in how both versions of 101 Dalmatians use music. The best example I can think of is the scene where Roger revives Lucky, who nearly dies after birth. In the animated original, no music plays and the weight of the moment is instead highlighted with ambient noise like a ticking clock and the thunderstorm outside. In the remake, however, there isn’t really any quiet moment during the entire runtime, so dramatic music plays during that scene instead.

While the animated One Hundred and One Dalmatians is still overall the better film, the live-action 101 Dalmatians puts enough of its own spin on the story that it’s worth watching at least once. If nothing else, it’s worth watching just for Glenn Close’s memorable performance as Cruella De Vil.

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