101 Dalmatians (1961/1996) and 102 Dalmatians (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Puppy Love

Remakes and sequels: they’re the bastard children of filmdom, rarely surpassing or even equaling the original movie that spawned them, and typically evoking a why-did-they-even-bother response. Once in a rare while, though, these cinematic offspring can stand proudly next to papa. Disney’s rollicking dalmatian movies comprise one such happy family.
Seeing spots
Disney doesn’t make bad animated films, but 101 Dalmatians has a lilting, lyrical charm that few other Disney films achieve. With a villain so deliciously evil that she has become iconic and a delightful sneak peek into the secret lives of dogs, this is a fantasy perfectly suited to the talents of Disney animators.

In 1960s London, a lonely bachelor laments the dullness of his life, and that of his pet. The bachelor is Pongo (the voice of Rod Taylor), a dalmatian, and his “pet” is Roger (Ben Wright: The Sound of Music), a songwriter who smokes pipes, an appealing character touch that would never be permitted in a children’s film today. So Pongo pounces on opportunity when he spies the lovely spotted Perdita (the voice of Cate Bauer) walking her “pet,” Anita (the voice of Lisa Davis), and engineers a meeting between all four of them. Before you can say “Dharma and Greg,” Roger and Anita are married and setting up house together with Pongo and Perdy, who soon present their pets with 15 puppies.

In grand Disney tradition, death is laid on the table almost immediately in the form of puppy No. 15, who appears not to have survived the trauma of birth. Roger holds the tiny creature, wrapped in a towel, as Pongo looks on sadly, stroking its little body, which fortunately revives the pup in time to prevent any children present for the viewing from asking awkward questions about why the puppy died. Promptly named Lucky, this doggy — and his siblings — will see that moniker challenged when Cruella De Vil appears on the scene.

Cruella (the voice of Betty Lou Gerson), an old school friend of Anita’s, is a pushy, demanding broad who dreams of a dalmatian-fur coat, and Roger — a struggling creative type — and Anita — who, this being the 60s, has no reason to hold down a job now that she’s married — almost accept her offer to buy the pups. But they can see how bony and angular she is, which, combined with her spiky hair, surely indicates evilness, and turn her away. She won’t be told No, however, and puts henchmen Horace and Jasper (the voices of Frederick Worlock and J. Pat O’Malley) to the task of rustling up enough dalmatian pups to make a coat.

101 Dalmatians is beautifully animated, with a sketchy, pencil-drawn, sometimes abstracted look. The creepy old De Vil country manor at which her minions have stowed the kidnapped 101 puppies has its heights exaggerated, as if we were seeing it from the perspective of small animals down on the floor — walls tower, and staircases are precipices. Humans frequently bear a startling resemblance to their dogs.

But the most beautiful section of the film is the “twilight bark” sequence, in which Pongo and Perdita send a call out to the dogs of London, searching for their kidnapped puppies. Animals have voice in 101 Dalmatians, from the dogs to the farmyard denizens out in the countryside who locate the lost puppies, and the underground railroad of critters that leads the dogs back home is a nicely understated testament to family and solidarity.

And if that’s not enough for you, wait for Lucky, caught in a snowstorm, to complain in his baby voice that “my toes are froze.” Awwww.

Fur kills
The 1996 live-action update of 101 Dalmatians is, ironically, more cartoonish than the animated original, and that’s just fine. With a terrific cast hamming it up as much as humanly possible, and having a grand time doing it, this remake is bouncy and lively, taking great advantage of the opportunities for fun live action allows, from the hoards of adorable — and real — puppies running amuck to the sheer manic joy Glenn Close obviously took in bringing Cruella to life. The is the rare family film adults and kids enjoy equally, if for different reasons.

Fairly faithful to the original story, 101 Dalmatians merely moves its characters up into the 90s while retaining their old-fashioned grace and innocence. Roger (Jeff Daniels: The Crossing, My Favorite Martian), now a video-game designer, and Anita (Joely Richardson: The Patriot, Event Horizon), now a fashion designer, meet much more cute than their predecessors, amidst a tandem dog-bike chase through a London park that ends messily. Their courtship is once again passed right over to get to the good stuff: Pongo and Perdy, living in sin with Roger and Anita, producing a litter of 15 puppies, including the returned-from-the-dead Lucky.

Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close: Tarzan) now runs the House of De Vil fashion empire, where Anita is employed. Anita, in the grip of puppy love, has sketched an outfit of dalmatian fur, which, naturally, captivates Cruella, who croons things like “I live for fur — I worship fur.” She wants the puppies; as before, Roger and Anita are horrified. So Cruella launches her evil dognapping plan to get them.

Kids, of course, go nuts for the oodles of puppies everywhere — with names like Dipstick and Fidget, and personalities to match, they are simply too adorable for words, whether they’re snoozing in a pile or stumbling around with baby clumsiness. (I’ve heard tell that this can make some grownups turn to mush as well.) There are no talking animals narrating the film here, but the dogs behave less like flesh-and-blood animals than their animated brethren do, though it’s all in the service of amusing the kiddies. Pongo performs a series of morning chores — such as turning on both the shower and the computer for Roger and bringing in the delivered milk on the doorstep — better than some humans could do at an early hour, and the physical affection Pongo and Perdy show each other — like their doggy hugs — is nothing you’ll ever have seen real dogs engage in. It’s cute as all hell, though.

Adults will likely be highly amused by the actors who are clearly having a ball. Daniels and Richardson can’t do much with their straight-man romantic roles but stand around and look worried, but Hugh Laurie (Stuart Little, The Man in the Iron Mask) and Mark Williams (Shakespeare in Love, The Borrowers) as Cruella’s stupid and inept dognappers are a hoot — they stop to “Awwww…” at the puppies before throwing the poor little things into a sack. Tim McInnerny (Longitude, Fairy Tale: A True Story) — who, like Laurie, Can Do No Wrong — as Cruella’s butler Alonzo takes exasperated put-uponness to new heights.

But it’s Close who makes 101 Dalmatians a must-see — for children and grownups — taking one of the great Disney villains and making her her own. She cackles with evil delight; she invokes Snow White’s wicked stepmother with her vanity and her beseeching of her mirror; she vamps and slinks her way through the film with confident abandon. Kids love her, and adults will find her campily hilarious.

A clockwork Cruella
It’s weird to think that there’s an entire generation of children out there for whom Glenn Close will be associated with kidnapped puppies and not with boiling rabbits. But 102 Dalmatians seals it: Her Cruella is back, vampier and funnier than ever, and kids will love her all the more. Their parents will have a fine time as well if they tag along to the multiplex.

After three years in prison, Cruella is declared cured of her dalmatian fixation, thanks to a Dr. Pavlov (heh, heh) and his behavioral conditioning. She is now appalled by fur and so enamored of dogs that she throws all her money, time, and effort into London’s 2nd Chance dog refuge, which was on the verge of being evicted from its ramshackle building. Dog lover Kevin (Ioan Gruffudd: Solomon and Gaenor, Horatio Hornblower) runs the shelter and is happy to have the reformed Cruella around, but her parole officer, Cloë (Alice Evans), is mortified: She’s convinced Cruella’s conversion is not as genuine as it seems… which may have something to do with the fact that Cloë is the owner of the now grownup Dipstick, his mate Dottie, and their three pups, including the — gasp! — spotless Oddball.

Things can’t stay happy for long, of course, and Cruella’s inevitable reversion to dalmatian madness is a hilarious — and rather disturbing — site: She sees, in a surreal vision, all of London draped in dalmatian spots. And so her quest to acquire “the ultimate fur that was denied me!” is back on, with the help of mad furrier Monsieur Le Pelt (Gérard Depardieu: The Man in the Iron Mask) and her valet Alonzo (Tim McInnerny again) — the 102nd puppy she now requires is for the hood newly added to the design. Puppies will be imperiled; Kevin and Cloë will fall in G-rated love; Depardieu’s accent will render him all but unintelligible; a good time will be had by all.

102 Dalmatians is more kiddie-focused than its predecessor, bringing to mind the wonderful children’s film Paulie, with Waddlesworth (the voice of Eric Idle: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut), a parrot who thinks he’s a Rottweiler and so refuses to fly; and the childlike (but never childish) Kevin, more a stand-in for the young audience than any other character in any Dalmatian movie has been. Gruffudd is too good an actor to have to vie with too-cute puppies for screen time — he should be getting top billing, not playing second fiddle to adorable critters — but the enthusiastic relish with which his Kevin approaches games of tug-of-war and Punch and Judy shows with his menagerie of adopted dogs and the genuine warmth and tenderness with which he interacts with the doggy actors is wonderful.

Again, though, this is Glenn Close’s movie. Dressing Cruella must have been a costume designer’s dream job, and the array of outfits she sports –from her stylish prison stripes and jeweled handcuffs to her shocking Nosferat-‘do — are almost worth the price of admission alone. But it’s Close’s insane, over-the-top glee that is a joy to watch, and it was in figuring out why children love Cruella so much that I realized why she is so terrific a character. Why would a kid like my 6-year-old friend Sheila — the most devoted dog lover I’ve ever met — gets such delight from her own spot-on Cruella imitation, mimicking her English accent as she crows “Catch those puppies!” and giggling with her own cleverness? It struck me that Cruella gets to rant and rave and make demands in the way that little kids would love to get away with. Cruella isn’t a madwoman — she’s an overgrown 5-year-old whose demands get answered. No wonder kids adore her, even if she does scare them a tad as well.

From its funky opening theme song to the wild finale in a French pastry bakery, 102 Dalmatians is as outrageous as a film about 100-plus dogs must be. The dalmatians are mostly just for kids this time around, but grownups won’t be bored.

101 Dalmatians (1961)
viewed at home on a small screen
rated G

101 Dalmatians (1996)
viewed at home on a small screen
rated G
official site | IMDB

102 Dalmatians
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated G
official site | IMDB

share and enjoy