Those poor puppies. As cartoon canines, they’d fetched and carried flawlessly — and quite profitably — for the Walt Disney Co. since the early 1960s. But ’90s Disney executives couldn’t keep themselves from handing over their adorable animated 101 Dalmatians to be skinned and stitched into something vulgar and showy and up-to-the-minute — namely, the live-action 101 Dalmatians, now available in unavoidable profusion on video at practically every retail outlet in the land.
Far from rejecting the idea of exploiting their beloved pooches for lucre, as Dalmatians’ selfless ”pet humans” Roger and Anita do, the keepers of the Disney empire have let the original Dalmatians’ impossible-to-curb appeal pull the company right into a nasty bit of poop. But who could expect them to resist rewalking these hounds? When the cartoon version came to theaters for the fifth time in 1991, as part of Disney’s revolving-classics strategy, it dug up an astonishing $60 million; the subsequent first-time-ever video release sold over 14 million tapes worldwide. Little wonder, then, that the Disney suits let slip the dogs of synergy: The studio has used the live-action version, which earned $135 million in North America alone, as an occasion to merchandise thousands of Dalmatian products, from cheap stuffed-animal ”plushes” to $265 limited-edition Cruella figurines to movie-set attractions at their ever-more-expensive-to-visit theme parks.
Indeed, Disney shills its wares even within the new film itself, apparently hoping to ensure a Pavlovian response. Human hero Roger, a songwriter in the animated feature, has become a videogame designer. We’re introduced to him as he tests his products, a direct plug for a similar Dalmatians CD-ROM program now stocked enticingly in mall shops and Disney Store outlets. Later in the movie, the puppies watch Disney’s current video release The Aristocats on TV. And when Cruella (Glenn Close) drapes herself in a tiger pelt, she recalls Snow White’s wicked queen by murmuring ”Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Such moments, in addition to the ads for Disney movies and Disney World that precede the movie on tape, give Dalmatians’ home edition the flavor of one long, unbroken commercial.
And not a very charming one, either, especially compared with the delicate flavor of the original animated romp. The 1961 version simply and gracefully tells the story of a family endangered, then reunited. Unfortunately, that plot has been souped up into a blaring, would-be laff riot by screenwriter-producer John Hughes (who has said in interviews that he was given strict orders not to make another Home Alone — he appears to have disobeyed). As directed by Disney homeboy Stephen Harek (The Mighty Ducks), the relentless update brims with mayhem. Every joke is thrashed into the ground: Puppies pee audibly on the floor and villains get electrocuted, at great length, in the crotch.
The new movie cranks up the characters as well. Close bares her own canines to chew scenery as the fur-worshiping Cruella, who here seems not so much greedy as clinically insane. A bedraggled Jeff Daniels renders Roger even more of a nerd than he used to be; by contrast, Joely Richardson’s Anita comes on strong as an assertive ’90s working woman, a fashion designer for Cruella’s House of De Vil. Most egregious is the change in Nanny (Dame Joan Plowright). Rather than playing the woman as a household retainer with a sweetly subservient manner, as in the old version, Plowright makes herself at home and then some, gassing on and on about the beauties of motherhood. The biggest misstep, though, comes when the dognappers break in. The sight of them shoving this elderly domestic, which worked fine in the understated cartoon, is remarkably disturbing in live action.
The remake’s most problematic change shifts the focus of the entire film: The dogs no longer talk. Without vocal personalities, they’re demoted from take-charge heroes to passive live props. It’s especially hard to attend to their pantomime on the home screen, where the slightest distraction means you might look away and miss a wordlessly enacted plot point.
Did the vast Disney machine simply slip up in forgetting to give the new Dalmatians a heart? Or is there something fundamentally hollow about the whole resurrected-franchise mentality? It’s not a trivial question as the company gears up to continue its self-cannibalizing remakes, among them this fall’s Robin Williams vehicle Flubber, which brings 1961’s The Absent Minded Professor back to life. In the meantime, dear viewer, let Disney’s latest dogs lie. A