ACCORDING TO VARIETY, THE 1961 ANimated "101 Dalmatians" is the sixth most popular movie of all time, judged by the number of tickets sold. If ticket prices then were what they are now, it would have made twice as much money as the blockbuster "The Lion King." There's gold in them thar hounds, which explains why Disney has ordered up a live-action remake. It doesn't explain what writer-producer John Hughes's 101 Dalmatians offers that the original didn't. One thing alone: real pooches. Is there a dog lover who'll be able to resist the sight of 99 Dalmatian puppie? Who won't coo as the grown-up Pongo kicks off the movie by starting his master's shower and pulling down his bedcovers with his teeth? Is there a Dalmatian breeder alive who can supply enough pups to meet the upcoming demand for black-and-white spotted things?
While the adorableness quotient of the new "101" is never in doubt, fans of the original may feel that its wit and charm have been diminished. The plot remains intact--the wicked Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close), with visions of a divine fur coat in her head, kidnaps Pongo and Perdy's 15 pups, and the parents join up with some barnyard beasts to rescue them from the taxidermist's knife. But this sturdy tale has been squeezed to fit the John Hughes mold, which for long stretches makes it feel as much like the third "Home Alone" as the second "Dalmatians." Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams, playing Cruella's two inept henchmen, take Daniel S tem and Joe Pesci's place as the brunt of one slapstick humiliation after another. Kids won't mind, but a little of this goes along way.
The grown-ups will be pinning their hopes on Close's flamboyant Cruella. Encased in Anthony Powell's wittily S&M high fashions, her hair screaming in all directions, she certainly cuts a striking figure. But this witch, I'm sorry to say, doesn't fly. Close gives it her all, belting out vitriol with Broadway bravado, gamely enduring every retributive vat of dung and pool of glue director Stephen Herek puts in her way. If only her lines were as sharp as her stiletto heels. Close's camp tigress is too unleashed: the purr of pent-up aggression is sacrificed for big-bite bellicosity.
Perhaps because these are real dogs (though sometimes digitally augmented), and equally real are the taxidermist's tools, Hughes and Herek have played down the sense of jeopardy: not for a moment do you believe that any harm will befall the pups. If that makes the movie a less than heart-racing experience for grown-ups, kids will doubtless have fun. Cute and broad, this re-make's OK. What I miss--what I'd hoped for--was a tad more sophistication. Silly me. I forgot it was the '90s.