Directed by Stephen Herek
Written by John Hughes
Starring Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Hugh Laurie
Directed by Kevin Lima
Written by Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan & Bob Tzudkier and Noni White
Starring Glenn Close, Gerard Depardieu, Eric Idle
How lazy are we willing to allow filmmakers to be in the modern age? This is an era when an homage is a knife’s edge away from being a blatant rip-off, a time when remakes and reboots are so common that it would be news if there was an extended period when each movie opening in theaters was wholly original, at least in that it wasn’t based on a book, musical, TV show, board game, etc. Perhaps a more pointed question specific to this column would be, how lazy are we willing to let a remake of a beloved classic be? Remakes, in general, are a tough business because public opinion is typically so stacked against them. Only in the case of a remake of a movie most people haven’t heard of or didn’t like to begin with (the latter being far more rare than the former), do we not hear a massive fuss being thrown.
And it’s hard to blame people for being so frustrated when they even get wind of the notion of remaking something they love. If you embrace a film or TV show or book, anyone daring to saunter in and retell that story is likely to raise your ire. They may love that story as much as you, if not more, and they could have the best possible intentions, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard to stomach a remake. Seeing as studios don’t often bankroll remakes because of sheer creative passion, it’s even easier to be cynical of all remakes. If they solely exist to make money, why should anyone feel excited about a remake? Yet despite the natural, logical frustration we may have about these projects, often enough, we bite the bullet and see them. Maybe going in with expectations of disappointment is unfair, but it’s better to see if those expectations are invalid.
So did anyone have high hopes for the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians? Disney probably knew it was sitting on a gold mine: one of their most memorable animated films, redone in live-action with one of their most reliable journeyman directors, one of Hollywood’s hottest writer-producers, and a recognizable and legitimate actress playing a particularly loathsome and iconic villain. From a financial standpoint, Disney executives, including Michael Eisner, were sitting pretty. Could they be faulted for hoping audiences would not only flock to the movie upon its initial release, but also return to it over the years? Not really. As much as nostalgia these days has pushed John Hughes’ films from the 1980s as pinnacles of the decade, his widespread success came in the 1990s. Teenagers loved The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, but everyone seemed to love Home Alone and, at least, everyone saw Miracle on 34th Street. With that remake past him, why not tackle an animated movie translated with real actors, not just ink and paint?
I don’t know that 101 Dalmatians could’ve worked in live-action, no matter who wrote, directed, or starred in it, and frankly, I imagine that the version we got is the best the story ever could be. You may claim a live-action version of an animated film is, by its very existence, heretical. But this 101 Dalmatians is mostly very faithful to the 1961 film, though some changes were made, almost all to make sure the 1990s-released version wasn’t a period piece. Of course, the biggest change aside from the medium is that the titular dogs don’t talk. They still communicate with other canine breeds, they still communicate with other animals…they just don’t talk. The problem, at least for me, is that watching real dogs, horses, raccoons, and others communicate through barks, neighs, chirps, squeaks, and so on as opposed to spoken words is not particularly exciting, as depicted in this film. The liveliness of the original, how wholly vital it felt—and while I do have issues with the animated film, it holds up much, much better compared to this remake—is evaporated when we’re not focused on the villains.
And even when focusing on the villains both in 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians, the live-action film suffers. Make no mistake, Glenn Close is the best part of the first film—there isn’t really a best part of the second film aside from the merciful relief the end credits provide—yet she and her flunkies, played by Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams in the first, a long way away from their relative fame in the 2000s, do not improve upon their animated counterparts. Disney cast Close to provide this project with a level of pomp and circumstance. Oh, sure, this might be a remake of a movie where a bad lady tries to kidnap puppies to make a fur coat, and sure, it might be from the guy who wrote Home Alone and Dennis the Menace, but look! Academy Award nominee Glenn Close! She’s a serious actress! Why, just the year before this film, she won an Emmy for playing a secretly lesbian US soldier! Disney’s not pussyfooting around here! And so on. Disney could’ve only gone further in casting Cruella De Vil had they reached out to Meryl Streep. Close is clearly game for anything in both films—in the first, she winds up being kicked by a horse after falling into a vat of molasses, and in the second, she is literally baked into a human-sized cake—but the over-the-top nature of Cruella De Vil doesn’t translate properly from animation.
Hand-drawn animation will always have value at Disney as long as it is respected and honored correctly. Look no further than the scene in both the 1961 and 1996 versions wherein Cruella drives her Rolls-Royce slowly by the farm where all of the Dalmatian puppies are hiding after escaping from Hell House. We get a shot, angled up slightly, of Cruella peering out her open window, as if she’s trying to scan the interior of the farm, hoping she can will her eyes into becoming mini X-rays. The framing is almost identical, if not entirely so, in the live-action film to what appears in the animated version. The original version of Cruella De Vil, in this scene, in this shot, is a perfectly distilled vision of chilling evil. The Glenn Close version is the Tex Avery wolf, howling not because of an attractive woman but because their canine prey is ever so close. Somehow, amazingly, the cartoonish depiction of this outlandish villainess comes in the version that isn’t animated.
In general, both 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians suffer because they were made by people solely thinking of the financial end, not attempting to inject vitality into retreads of a familiar story. The second film is even more turgid and dire than the 1996 film, which at least can rely on a plot structure we’re all very comfortable with watching again. Each movie has a similar set-up and pay-off, in that Cruella wants to abduct Dalmatian puppies to make the most fabulous fur coat in the history of mankind, but receives only her just desserts, in the form of outrageous and death-defying moments of slapstick. As always, it’s not so much that we know how this scenario will always end up, but that the journey to the happy ending as well as the execution is never nearly as satisfying as it could be. In each of the films, we see the canine characters sitting down to watch some older Disney film, often so the adults in the audience can smile knowingly because, hey, Disney characters watching Disney movies is cute! But these references, even when the characters are watching The Aristocats, serve as a reminder that we could be watching something else, something better.
The most truly outrageous offender is when, in the second film, we’re treated to a revamp of the iconic “Bella Notte” scene from Lady and the Tramp. First, we watch the dogs owned by the two romantic leads—not Anita and Roger, who magically disappear and aren’t even mentioned in the second film—watching the 1955 classic, specifically the scene where the title characters have a romantic Italian dinner, culminating in them sharing a strand of spaghetti that leads to a kiss. You’ve seen this scene. We all have. Whatever your opinions of that film overall—and I like it, but am not totally besotted by it—that specific scene earns its place in Disney’s iconography. Had 102 Dalmatians simply shown us the Dalmatians and other dogs watching Lady and the Tramp, that would be one thing, something boring if not particularly lazy or offensive. However, we move away from the dogs and cut to Kevin and Chloe, our bland human leads, on a date. The venue of choice? An Italian restaurant called Tony’s. And how about that, they’re both eating plates of spaghetti. Kevin even nudges a meatball from his plate over to Chloe’s! (I am not lying when I tell you I would be fine with this carbon copy had he done so with his nose, as Tramp did. No such luck.)
The human characters in both films, those who are inherently good, are patently uninteresting. I can forgive the first film this transgression because at least they cast Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson as Roger and Anita. It’s no slight against Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Evans, the actors in the sequel, but they’re given nothing to do. So it’s not particularly cute to me watching them reenacting the memorable moment from another film. All this is, is a sign that the people writing the film have no original ideas. They aim to be as loud as possible, as fast as possible, and pray to God that we all forget we saw the film before we even reach the parking lot of the movie theater.
I didn’t want to be as repelled by the sequel, or as bored by the live-action remake of the 1961 film, but here we are. 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians are empty, hollow films, movies inspired by something that may not have been perfect, but was far more lively and inspired than anything on display here. I can appreciate the first of the two movies, because I at least enjoyed the casting of Jasper and Horace retroactively–Lord knows I had zero memory in 1996 of who Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams were. But even that film only made me chuckle once. What I kept thinking throughout both movies, something that I might not have expected after revisiting the 1961 film, was this: “This was better as an animated feature.” Ironically, the more live-action this world became, the more cartoonish it got.