Directed by Stephen Herek
Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams
Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment
Release Date: September 16, 2008
In this 1996 Disney offering, the studio dug into their animated back catalog to make a live-action version that was very faithful to their 1961 hit 101 Dalmatians.
As with the original, Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) are thrown together when their dalmatians Pongo and Perdy fall in love and then play matchmaker with their owners. The foursome soon become a happy family living in their cozy London flat, with Perdy expecting puppies. Unfortunately, the evil, eccentric Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close) wants the puppies for herself so she can make a fur coat out of them. When Roger and Anita refuse to give her the puppies, Cruella resorts to getting her henchmen to abduct them.
There are very few differences from the animated version. In the live-action film, Roger is a video game developer instead of a songwriter, and Anita is actually a fashion designer at Cruella’s company. It’s at work that Anita creates a spotted design inspired by Perdy, which is what sparks Cruella’s obsession for a dalmatian coat. This actually makes better sense than the origin premise, which had Cruella as an old school mate of Anita’s who just shows up out of nowhere.
Another difference is the addition of the character Skinner, a mute taxidermist who Cruella hires to kill the puppies and skin them so she can make her coat. He has a minor role, and wasn’t really necessary for the film, except to maybe scare young audiences — as if Close’s wonderful portrayal of the frightening Cruella wouldn’t do the trick.
Helping Skinner gather the puppies are Cruella’s two bumbling henchmen, Horace and Jasper, who — to much comedic effect — are outsmarted not only by the dalmatians but by all the other animals in the vicinity who aid in the puppies’ rescue. The scenes with the henchmen out on the snow-covered roads of the country and inside Cruella’s rundown mansion are very faithful to the original and just as entertaining. A real treat here are the “before they were famous” actors who play these two goons: Mark Williams, better known as Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter movies and Hugh Laurie — using his true British voice — long before he became known as House.
If when you’re watching the scenes with Horace and Jasper you feel like you’ve seen this before, maybe in Home Alone, that’d be because
John Hughes, who wrote Home Alone, also wrote this adaptation (yes, the same Hughes who directed teen hits like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club).
But, you can’t have an animal movie — and a Disney animal movie at that — without talking about the animal actors. What I liked about this movie is that it was adorable and charming without making the animals become “human.” They did not talk, nor did they do voiceovers. While they are clever and smart animals, they weren’t unbelievably clever and smart. They still behaved as dogs do.
Because the dogs neither talk nor narrate the movie, Michael Kamen‘s score perfectly backs the lengthy “Twilight Bark” sequence (another flawless transfer from the original film) where the dogs in the area send a message across town to the other animals about the missing puppies.
101 Dalmatians is one of Disney’s best live-action films and is definitely a must-have in your collection. The only problem I had with this DVD is that there are no bonus features. I’m not sure why is was recently re-released if there’s nothing new being offered. It doesn’t make too much sense, considering that the DVD for the film’s direct sequel, 102 Dalmatians, contains a lot of bonus features, including feature-length director commentary. Extras like that would have been greatly welcomed on this DVD release.