Apparently, the folks over at Disney think that all they have to do have a hit movie is throw a few cute puppies on the screen and watch the audience come running. They're right.
102 Dalmatians succeeds on just about every level. It's sweet enough that your five-year-old isn't going to be warped by it, funny enough to keep you giggling, and clever enough that any adult will be entirely entertained. It's one of those rare sequels that actually outshines the original. When I say "original," I am referring to the first live action film, not the original animated 101 Dalmatians which is much better than either of its descendants. The earlier live action version was cute, but it suffered from an unnecessary attempt to modernize the story. John Darling was no longer a starving songwriter, he was a starving video game designer. That just doesn't have the same kind of class. By sticking to its fairly simple story, 102 Dalmatians avoids any of that kind of awkwardness.
The story takes place three years after the original arrest of Cruella De Vil for dognapping. Experimental psychotherapy has cured Cruella of her lust for fur and she is released. Against the advice of her parole officer, she takes it upon herself to bail out a failing dog shelter. Eventually, of course, Cruella returns to her evil ways and joins forces with a vile French furrier with the hope of finally getting her puppy coat, this time with a hood (hence the extra dalmatian). Aside from Cruella, the only returning character is Dipstick, a puppy in the first movie, now with a family of his own. Joining him are Dottie, his mate, and their three pups, one of whom (Oddball) has no spots at all. Oddball is really the star of the show and is well able to hold her own, even against Glenn Close, who is excellent in her return as Cruella. However, the biggest surprise for me was a talking Macaw named Waddlesworth, who thinks that he's a dog. I had seen him in the preview and was wary. Usually, talking birds get on my nerves after the second Polly-wanna-cracker joke. Not so here. He was the funniest part of the movie. Something about a parrot barking and growling and biting at someone's ankles just cracked me up.
As I said, Glenn Close is very good. I'm always impressed when an actor can go from playing subtle and complex in one film to cartoony and over the top in the next and still bring it off. In this movie she's sometimes scary and sometimes hilarious and always fun to watch. The other human characters are fine; not great, but not bad by any means. The only weak link in the cast is Gerard Depardieu as the evil furrier. Depardieu is always over-the-top, so when he plays it that way deliberately it's overkill. It's like watching a big, dumb, French bull blunder around the set, shouting all of his lines. And there's only so many times the French pronunciation of "puppies" ("poopies") is funny. Actually, that's not true. It wasn't even funny the first time.
There's plenty of action to be had here, from Oddball taking a balloon ride, to the climactic scene in a pastry factory. Some of it is kind of scary, but nothing that kids can't handle. Cruella is, after all, less scary than the Grinch. The screening I went to was full of kids and they loved it. Usually a theater full of little kids sends me running for the exit, but not this time. It's hard to resist a hundred 6-12 year olds laughing and clapping and actually paying attention.
And did I mention how cute the puppies are? I mean, they're really cute. Grown men are cooing at the screen. You can't help it. Never underestimate the innate cuddliness of a little spotted ball of fur. This is probably why sales and adoptions of dalmatians went through the roof after 101 came out a few years ago. Unfortunately, dalmatians are not easy dogs to keep, and there was a rash of returns two or three months later. The filmmakers were sensitive to this and not only went out of their way to show other breeds of cute puppies, but also put a disclaimer at the end of the film suggesting that you think carefully before adopting any dog.
My only complaint, aside from the oafish Depardieu, is that occasionally you can tell that Oddball's spots have been removed via computer. It's gotta be hard to keep up that effect on a moving puppy, and it's a problem easily overlooked what with the magnificent costumes, the incredibly cute animals, and the charming storyline. Disney has a history of going all out on the first in a series and then churning out cheap direct-to-video sequels. Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin both suffered this fate. However, if Toy Story 2 and now 102 Dalmatians are any indication, the tide could be turning for the best.
102 Dalmatians is rated PG for cartoon violence.
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