Directed by: Steve Herek
Written by: Dodie Smith (Novel), John Hughes (Screenplay)
Starring: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams
An evil high-fashion designer plots to steal Dalmatian puppies in order to make an extravagant fur coat, but instead creates an extravagant mess. (Source: IMDb)
Growing up in the early 1990s, most of my earliest cinema memories are connected to the beloved House of Mouse. I distinctly remember seeing some of the early animated classics on the big screen, and at the peak of my dalmatian obsession, being very excited to see this live-action adaptation of my then favourite film.
Fast forward twenty something years and I am rediscovering the films of my childhood through a mammoth rewatch of the (at time of writing) 58 Walt Disney Animation Studios films, sometimes known as the Disney Classics. Documenting this in a podcast series for JumpCast, the research for the episodes has also led me back to the live action adaptations, and whilst not essential to the discussion on the original animated films, there is some merit to rewatching these back as well.
I think it is fair to say the live action adaptations generally pale in comparison to the originals, but with Disney seemingly hellbent on remaking every single one of their beloved classics, it is a phenomenon which isn’t going away. Whilst undoubtedly varying in quality, there are some gems in the remakes as well, and through this Remakes Revisited series, I will be attempting to sort the wheat from the chaff!
That brings us nicely to the film which is the subject of this retrospective review, and whilst I think I may have led the Twitter poll in this direction, (I’m not sorry!) I was absolutely delighted that 101 Dalmatians was the first one for me to dive into.
The Disney remakes have certainly stepped up in recent years, with one released pretty much every year for the last 10 years. 2019 was a particularly mammoth year for remakes, with Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Lady and The Tramp, and Maleficent’s sequel, all dropping in that year! It’s not surprising then that many forget that a whole 24 years ago, Disney gave us one of the better live-action adaptations.
101 Dalmatians, as previously alluded to, was my absolute favourite film as a child, but until very recently, it had probably been a good 15 years since I had last watched it. Whenever revisiting a childhood favourite, there is always the fear that it won’t hold up, but that absolutely wasn’t the case with 101 and I found myself really enjoying it! Modern Disney remakes tend to go one of two ways: completely rewriting the story to see it from an alternative perspective (see 2014’s Maleficent), or being a soulless shot-for-shot remake of the original (looking at you The Lion King!). 101 is unique however for being very true to the original film, with some welcome additions and changes that are perfectly balanced to make it feel new and different.
A huge problem I have with some of the “animal” Disney live-actions, is how odd it looks when the animals talk. Particularly evident in Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book and Lion King, the incredibly photorealistic animation paired with the characters talking, is a little too uncanny valley. 101 Dalmatians however, wisely chooses to let the dogs be dogs; they are incredibly expressive but they do not talk, and it definitely goes in the film’s favour.
If animal acting was an awards category, then these dogs would definitely win it, and credit to the amazing animal trainers who worked with them as well. There is some (early!) CGI utilised as well, but for the most part the dogs are real, and they act and behave in the way real dogs would. This has limitations of course, and means the human characters have to do a bit more heavy lifting, but fortunately this cast is absolutely stacked. We’ll get to the fabulous Queen of Mean momentarily, but the whole supporting cast in this is really quite great. Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams are perfectly cast as the henchmen Jasper and Horace, and Joan Plowright is incredibly charming and lovely as Nanny. These three in particular are very close to their animated counterparts, and do a fantastic job of bringing these characters to life.
The real highlight of this film however, is of course Glenn Close as the iconic Cruella De Vil. It is no easy feat to bring this over-the-top villain to life, but Close is absolutely flawless. She perfectly taps into the charm and mania of the character, adding her own touches, as well as lovingly paying tribute to the original voice actress, Betty Lou Gerson. It’s hammy, theatrical, and deliciously scenery-chewing, and the highest praise you could give is that her portrayal is now as equally iconic as the animated original. One addition that I do really like in this film, is painting Cruella as this fashion mogul, of course obsessed with fur. The relationship between her and Anita (Joely Richardson) then makes much more sense, and it adds just enough backstory and context to the character, without going down the route of pinpointing exactly why she is the way she is. This was something incredibly frustrating about Maleficent for example, which in many ways ruined the aura and secrecy behind the villain from Sleeping Beauty; something which is not needed, as it is more potent when you don’t know too much!
Of course, this film isn’t perfect, and some elements do seem much more dated now. The CGI effects for example look a bit dodgy, and I honestly still don’t understand why there are raccoons in it…even 5 year old me knew that raccoons were not native to the UK where the film is set! The slapstick humour of the film is also a little silly when you look back on it as an adult, but remembering that children are very much the intended audience, it is understandable why it is there. It blew my mind to find out that John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes) was the writer of this film, but when you know this, the tone and humour of the film makes a lot more sense. A lot of the scenes involving Horace and Jasper, are very reminiscent of Harry and Marv from Home Alone, which actually adds to the nostalgic feel of the film as well.
I would be willing to bet that a lot of people have not watched this film for a very long time, but it is certainly one I would encourage you to go back to. Proving that absolutely nothing is sacred, Disney are going to be releasing a Cruella prequel in 2021, and before that absolutely ruins this beloved villain by giving us the gritty backstory that nobody asked for, remember that there is a good live-action version of this character, and that is Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians!
I’m pretty confident in stating this, 101 Dalmatians remains one of the best Disney live action remakes to date. It perfectly strikes that balance between tribute to the original, and enough expansion to feel like it is offering something new as well. With an exceptional cast, and an abundance of cute animals, this remake is daft, dark, and utterly delightful!