Bring me those puppies!

101 Dalmatians Stephen Herek (U)
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The Independent Culture
This review is pledged to find no unnecessary fault with Disney's live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians, if only because the human hero Roger (Jeff Daniels) seems to be a faithful reader of this newspaper. In theory the film is an update rather than a straightforward remake, but the few contemporary elements sit on the surface without being absorbed, looking rather awkward. The camera can occasionally drag its lens away from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament to show us the Barbican, if not the NatWest tower, but this is still essentially a London of nannies and Chelsea pensioners, and The Independent's front page is obsessed with stolen puppies.

Roger may look between a dog's legs to decide its sex with perfect casualness, but human privacy is as modestly veiled as it ever was: Roger proposes to Anita (Joely Richardson) the day he meets her, and no funny business. Nor do Pongo and Perdita, their dogs, do anything more animal than leaning heads sweetly together. For years now the urine of babies and puppies has been the most outlandish acceptable element in family comedies, and 101 Dalmatians breaks no further barriers in this respect.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Dodie Smith's story is that it should be for children without having children in it. This oddity is accentuated in the new version by the abandonment of animation: cartoon provides a childlike perspective all by itself, or at least a world without definitive consequences, without sex and death. The only child in the new version is nerdy Herbert, the connoisseur of video games who must give his stamp of approval to Roger's designs before anyone will market them. A child with power over grown-ups.

By choosing not to have the animals speak, screenwriter John Hughes goes against the original cartoon and also shies away from competition with that anthropomorphic benchmark Babe (can you have an anthropomorphic benchmark?). His motive is to make the film more "realistic", which only means that the audience can't help asking awkward questions.

Are Roger and Anita rich or poor? (Not a question you ask about cartoon characters.) Both, apparently. Poor enough to economise on dog food, rich enough to employ a nanny and to buy personal collars, gender-coded pink and blue, each in a separate swanky little case, for Pongo and Perdita's 15-strong litter. It's not that animal faces and postures, competently manipulated, can't convey emotion - they can and do. But being excluded from the animals' supposedly cross-species communication - birds impart information to dogs, dogs to pigs and horses - leave us stranded with our cynical reflexes. Even the film's young target audience will have noticed that dogs communicate largely by sniffing each others bottoms.

Only Glenn Close's Cruella DeVil remains triumphantly in two dimensions. Close is both aided and hampered by Anthony Powell's extravagant costumes, which, for instance, require her to wear gloves with built-in nails at all times, so that we never get a humanising glimpse of hand-flesh. Her actorly expressiveness is greatly restricted, but she can't call on the cartoon character's ability to change eye size and colour at moments of sadism or stress. What she is well able to convey is campy impatience, helped by some good lines, but overall she's more bitchy than demonic.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Hughes and his director, Stephen Herek, are remaking another film as well as the cartoon original. When farmyard animals lay elaborate traps for Cruella and her henchmen, and the frequency of pratfalls steadily rises, it is the spectre of Home Alone that is conjured up. You half expect the Old English sheepdog to unmask, revealing Macaulay Culkin's grin.

The film's two finest moments, one comic and one dramatic, are own goals. We see an Airedale embarking on a hilarious mime to convey to other animals that he has seen a man carrying puppies in a sack. He gets up laboriously on his hind legs and takes a few unsteady hops to drive the message home. This is funny and endearing, until we remember that animals can talk, even if we don't understand, so why the mime? The other brief high point is a sequence, shot subjectively, of puppies whizzing down a frozen drainpipe to safety. It's like a canine Cresta Run. But the only reason it's so thrilling is because it's computer animated, and in that case the rationale for live action looks pretty shaky. The special effects aren't always so expert, and some shots of massed puppies have a Jurassic Park quality of solidity without weight.

The strangest new element in the film is the varied wildlife to be found in the English countryside. Racoons helpfully sabotage a car, and a skunk masquerades as Cruella's handbag so as to give her a stinking ambush at the appropriate moment. The only question is: where are the llamas and penguins? Any inhabitant of Suffolk will tell you that llamas and penguins are just as widespread and just as troublesome as the skunks and racoons

`101 Dalmatians' goes on general release tomorrow

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