Classic Review: 101 Dalmatians (1996) (2024)

If anything, 101 Dalmatians serves as a jolting reminder of the fact that the film industry worked differently in the 1990s. Children’s films were targeted at the whole family and elements of serious adult dramas were embedded into silly stories about talking animals or Macaulay Culkin trying to murder his adoptive brother. They felt like muscular and fully developed, in a way that flimsily plotted superhero films don’t. John Hughes decided to turn 101 Dalmatians into the story of a dysfunctional marriage that is threatened by the British class system and this choice baffled me. The ostensible subjects of the film, Cruella de Vil and the cute little puppies, are frequently pushed aside in favour of two B-list movie stars and Hughes doing his best attempt at writing a Sinclair Lewis play. The fact that Hughes wanted to go in a different direction with this project was an admirable one but the film is essentially an excuse to let Glenn Close camp it up.

101 Dalmatians sees Close play the infamous Cruella de Vil, the story’s infamous villain, as a monstrous fashion designer who has a dangerous affinity for fur. She decides that she wants to create a fur coat out of Dalmatians after her employee Anita (Richardson) presents her with a coat that features fabric resembling the fur of a Dalmatian. Anita does not know that she has planted this idea in de Vil’s head and happily goes about her day to day life. She quickly falls in love with American game designer Roger Dearly (Daniels) after meeting him in the park. They both own Dalmatians and their dogs end up conceiving children together. The couple gets married and happily await the day when their dogs will be able to call themselves proud parents. It is only when de Vil intercedes and suggests that they sell the puppies to her, that they see her sinister side. She becomes increasingly insistent in her demands and the Dalmatians are forced to fight back in a desperate attempt to save their own hides.

There is something upsetting about the fact that the film looks like such a cheap, low rent production. None of the visuals pop off the screen, Close has to wear costumes that could have come off the rack and the lighting ensures that everybody looks unusually ghostly. It also feels as though they couldn’t decide whether this was going to exist in the sunny, idealised version of England that was invented by Richard Curtis or the terrifying, nightmarish universe that a supervillain would flourish in. From scene to scene, the visual palette completely changes and this inconsistency sets everything off balance. Viewers can never quite settle into one tone or get a sense of how they are meant to feel about the events playing out on screen. At times there is even the sense that 101 Dalmatiansis merely two completely different films that have been poorly stitched together. It would make sense, because Hughes never finds a way to mesh all of his ambitious ideas together.

Close’s performance as de Vil should hold this together but everything around her is so unexciting that it becomes difficult for her to enliven the proceedings. It wouldn’t be fair to reduce her work down to mere scenery chewing theatrics. She rips into her role with reckless abandon and the twinkle in her eye lets us know that she has a few tricks up her sleeve. This isn’t the most nuanced piece of work that she ever turned in, but she showed up and spun gold out of nothing. Her jokes could’ve been even funnier had she just been given more screen time and a slightly better script. We all know what she can do with a sharp one liner and a well placed close-up. It’s a shame that Stephen Herek didn’t have the instincts of most of Close’s ardent admirers.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the makers of Cruella to improve on mess that was 101 Dalmatians. Having doubts about Emma Stone’s portrayal of de Vil, the screenplay will surely be nowhere near as messy as the one Hughes put together. Fans will simply have to get used to the idea of seeing somebody else inhabiting a role made iconic by Close, so the filmmakers already have an uphill battle on their hands. Let’s hope that they pull off whatever they’re aiming to achieve here.

still courtesy of Disney

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Classic Review: 101 Dalmatians (1996) (1)

Zita Short

I am passionate about screwball comedies from the 1930s and certain actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’ll aim to review new Netflix releases and write features, so expect a lot of romantic comedies and cult favourites.

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Classic Review: 101 Dalmatians (1996) (2024)
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