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Devil's Dementia Serves as Twisted Inspiration For Disney's New Live-Action '101 Dalmatians'

101 Dalmatians directed by Stephen Herek Starring Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels

By Erwin R. Rosinberg

The charming new live-action remake of "101 Dalmatians" is more than a keen marketing ploy, although Disney is sure to accumulate plenty of doggie dollars. Director Stephen Herek has smartly chosen to remain faithful to the cartoon, maintaining the story's buoyant wit and inherent cuddliness. One hundred and one adorable Dalmatians are difficult to resist, and the film works well even without the luxury of canine dialogue. But the best reason to see "101 Dalmatians" is the wickedly entertaining performance of Glenn Close, who is perfectly cast at the dastardly Cruella De Vil.

The film begins firmly rooted in the human world, but it is clear from the start that the dogs are in charge. Dalmatian Pongo wakes his "master" Roger (Jeff Daniels), starts the shower, makes the coffee, and turns on the computer. Pongo's expressive grunts, barks, and tail-wagging make Roger's conversation with him seem perfectly normal, as any dog owner will insist. The camaraderie between humans and dogs is affectionately represented in the movie, although the pooches appear to have a significant intellectual edge.

After one helter-skelter day of turbulent bicycle rides in the park, Roger and Pongo fall in love with Anita (Joely Richardson) and Perdita. They hold a double wedding and soon Perdita gives birth to 15 Dalmatian puppies. Daniels and Richardson play these potentially corny scenes with deadpan sincerity, making the parallels between canine and human love amusing rather than insipid. The always-reliable and lovable Joan Plowright also appears as the couple's nanny.

The film's sunny beginning is soon shattered by Cruella De Vil, who hatches a plot to steal the puppies in order to satisfy her obsessive desire for a Dalmatian fur coat. De Vil is Disney's wildest villain: slinky, sophisticated, overbearing, and utterly deranged. Given the chance to indulge herself by playing such a comically evil figure, Glenn Close delivers a masterful and unrestrained performance. Close gets to verbally abuse every character in the movie, shouting her insults with contempt and devilish glee. She also perfects the look of materialistic dementia that defines Cruella's character. Because the puppies are real, rather than animated, De Vil's desire to turn them into an extravagant possession seems all the more depraved.

Every detail of Close's character is perfect. Crammed into an array of fantastic furs she sports the stylish half black/half white De Vil hair-do. Even her long red gloves have press-on nails. De Vil is constantly armed with a long cigarette, and she drops her ashes on the feet of any subservient fool she meets.

But Close is a good sport when Cruella receives her comeuppance. Mock-refinement and unbridled laughter are replaced by a series of embarrassing pratfalls in which the animal kingdom retaliates against Cruella.

The film's closing scenes are the only time when the story diverges from its animated predecessor. Screenwriter John Hughes can't resist turning the film into a hybrid of one of his "Home Alone" movies, featuring a drawn-out sequence of physical comedy. De Vil's henchmen Horace and Jasper play the Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci roles, as they are flung through windows and into frozen ponds. Cruella ends up the victim of much of this comic buffoonery, as she is kicked by a horse, squashed by an overweight hog, and immersed in a vat of molasses. This sequence is not particularly agonizing to watch, but it detracts from the movie's slightly more sophisticated approach to recreating the story.

The film requires the participation of numerous animals, including raccoons, woodpeckers, skunks and a large variety of dogs. Computers and puppets were used to aid the filmmakers, but this is never painfully obvious. The movie's premise is intentionally fantastic, but everything looks real and believable.

Although Close's portrayal should be enough to entertain older audiences, there are a few clever concepts thrown into the film. This version of "101 Dalmatians" has been updated to the nineties, so that Cruella is a fashion mogul with a large corporation and Roger designs video games. In the movie, Roger is working on a game featuring Dalmatians, but he cannot find the perfect villain for his creation until he meets De Vil, whose dementia serves as a twisted inspiration.

Ever the crowd pleaser, Disney indulges the audience's desire for a simple happy ending, played with delightful tongue-in-cheek humor. "101 Dalmatians" is harm-less fun and, with a superbly villainous performance by Glenn Close, is far less obnoxiously cute than it sounds.

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