There’s hardly a baby boomer — or a baby of a boomer — who hasn’t seen 101 Dalmatians, either when it first came out in 1961 or in one of its hugely successful theatrical reissues. (Last summer it outdrew more than a few new blockbuster releases.) But why is this pleasant, modest little canine adventure so much more enduring than other Disney cartoon features of its era, such as The Sword in the Stone or Sleeping Beauty? Maybe because Dalmatians revels in domestic bliss, lingering on archetypal images of love between master and dog, husband and wife, pooch parents and newborn pups, in an era of trendily dysfunctional screen families.
Finally unleashed on tape this week, Dalmatians seems a cozier picture of home life than ever — especially next to another new, priced-to-buy doggy in the video-store window, a quirky 27-minute short called Frankenweenie. Since this one’s also a Disney release, and in many stores will cost about the same as a discounted Dalmatians, lots of parents may consider buying Frankenweenie for very young kids. But look closer: This sweetly macabre tale of a dog resurrected from the grave has plenty to offer grown-ups, and just as much to creep out tots.
That’s because Frankenweenie was the first major project directed by Tim Burton, the unabashedly morbid visual stylist who went on to make Beetlejuice and both Batman and the upcoming Batman Returns (see sidebar). Although Burton was still a 25-year-old Disney animator when he shot the live-action Frankenweenie, it isn’t a clumsy piece of apprenticeship; it’s a slickly produced featurette that Disney shied away from releasing after it was rated PG. A black-and-white homage to old horror flicks, the movie has a parodistic plot that plays out a primal suburban-childhood nightmare: What if I threw my beloved pet the ball just a little too hard and he got hit by a car while trying to retrieve it?
Since the late bull terrier is named Sparky and the devastated young owner goes by the moniker Victor Frankenstein, it’s not tough to guess how the story will unfold. In fact, that’s Frankenweenie’s one teeny problem: It’s so tightly leashed to the tale it salutes, it doesn’t always build enough fantasy logic of its own. Boris Karloff understandably made villagers nervous, but does Burton’s cast of nosy neighbors really need to bolt immediately at the sight of Sparky with little electrodes in his neck? While there’s plenty of visual whimsy to savor, the more repeat viewings you make to catch subtle sight gags — like the knitting-needle stitches the risen mutt has down his back — the more you’ll be reminded of the makeshift plot.
There’s no such bone to pick with 101 Dalmatians, which tethers delightfully stylized animation to a story line as lean, lithe, and sturdy as its two leading canine characters, Pongo and Perdita. The drawing gets a bit, well, spotty at times — one shot of a barking pup reruns the same footage backward — but the engaging ”cast” more than carries it. As Pongo and ”Perdy” track down fur-worshipping Cruella De Vil, the ”mad old lady” who steals their 15-puppy brood to make a dog-skin coat, they act uncannily more real than the parents in most live-action movies, showing their confusion, weariness, and worry.
Fortunately, all that keen behavioral detail isn’t lost on video, since all the characters in the story, be they dog, cat, goose, or ”pet human,” have exaggerated expressions that translate well to smaller home screens. In fact, the movie’s two most ingeniously contrasted sequences are more at home on TV than they were in theaters: You know just what sort of comfort the dogs take watching serials and game shows on the tube, first in their London flat, then in Cruella’s ramshackle lair. Chock-full of nurturing domesticity, Dalmatians makes delicious video chow. B+