FILM Tails of the unexpected: `101 Dalmatians' proves a passable Christmas treat, and `Star Trek' boldly goes where it hasn't before
"ANTHROPOMORPHISE wherever possible" was the recent response of a leading Cambridge zoologist to a query about whether we are right to attribute personalities and rich inner lives to our domestic quadrupeds. In the wake of the Babe boom, this is probably sound advice for film-makers as well as pet owners. One of the disappointments of the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians (U) - which, be it said from the outset, does fairly ooze with canine cuteness and will make a more than acceptable Christmas outing for most small humans - is that it doesn't carry its anthropomorphism far enough. The pooches don't talk.

In Disney's cartoon version, you may recall, the noble Dalmatian patriarch Pongo was at once narrator, hero and prime mover. His new, fleshly counterpart opens the film in dapper style, performing a range of morning chores from making coffee to booting up the computer (unless you have servants or a servile partner, you may find yourself wondering "How much is that doggie in the movie?": it isn't just tots who will leave the cinema loudly craving spotted company). Such early promise is deceptive. Denied voices and distinctive characters, Pongo and his lady-love Perdita are shoved to the margins of their own story - the pivotal episode of the Twilight Bark becomes confused without running animal commentary - while the bipeds take centre stage. Still, at least this time you won't have to try to explain to your children why the 15 pups all have American accents when their parents speak pure Home Counties.

Most of the other changes from the cartoon are updatings of detail or sensibility. Roger (Jeff Daniels, in unbecoming tweeds), a failed English songwriter in the original, is now a failed American computer- games artist; his games are based on the antics of Pongo, which allows for a few enjoyable moments of hommage to the cartoon. Roger's wife Anita (Joely Richardson) is no longer decoratively jobless, but works as a frock designer; Cruella De Vil - Glenn Close, sporting ever-more-barbaric variations on the black- and-white Bride of Frankenstein coiffure worn by her animated prototype, and sheathed in a eye-offending range of feral and outlandish garments - is the head of the fashion house for which she works. (In any other context, what Ms Close does would be called over-acting, but it makes sense here: she's a living cartoon.)

Some of the updatings bear dividends - Cruella's insatiable hunger for fur seems more wicked than ever in our greenish times - and some of them chafe a little against the timeless, fairy-tale cosiness of the film's view of Britain: a kinder, gentler land where dozens of well-mannered policemen will turn up to investigate a minor burglary, and where the front-page headline of the Independent, of which Roger is shown to be a keen and loyal reader, can run "Fifteen Puppies Stolen". Also, in 1996 Stephen Herek's film can dare show something old Walt could never have allowed: a micturating puppy. The benefits of such frankness are debatable. Should your kiddies shriek with laughter at the sight of wee-wee, you might want to consider abandoning them.

Elsewhere, it plays safe and traditional in its hunt for laughs. The best turns belong to Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams, who manage to put a bit of spark into their duet as Cruella's incompetent thugs. If the violent and repetitious slapstick to which they are subjected by the animal kingdom smacks too much of Home Alone (John Hughes, who wrote and produced Dalmatians, also bears the responsibility for making Master Culkin what he is today), they play amusingly off each other: Laurie the sharp-witted top dog with a classy line in vocabulary - listen carefully, and you can hear him using the word "macro-economics" as a metaphor at one point - and Williams the slack-jawed underdog, chock-full of slowly mounting resentment. Williams is also the star of the film's single most imaginative vision, when he crawls out of a frozen pond and crystallises into an ice sculpture: curiously haunting.

A few more touches like that could have lifted the film above its prevailing standard of not bad, bordering on pretty good. Unless you're prickly enough to take umbrage at its images of women (Joan Plowright, as Nanny, has an emet- ic speech about the mysteries of motherhood, and one can only wonder at Glenn Close's seemingly endless appetite for roles which carry, to say the least, a distinct whiff of latent misogyny), there's nothing dismaying about 101 Dalmatians. And all those dogs are just as frisky as can be.

Yet while the film's poster may boast of magic, that commodity isn't delivered in sufficient quantities fully to disarm the adult's mind or distract the child's. If it were, the film's goofs and liberties would not glare so. Apart from a number of the wild violations of spatial continuity that are a reliable pleasure of Hollywood films set in London, 101 Dalmatians also plays fast and loose with our nation's fauna (skunks and racoons are shown to be indigenous to Oxfordshire) and with what Jasper would call its micro-economics. Talking dogs would have put less strain on one's capacity for suspended disbelief than the miracle of a barely employed young married couple able to afford a two- storey mews house in SW7, especially one with a rooftop view of the Houses of Parliament identical to that enjoyed by County Hall. Not that these pedantic objections will much trouble Hughes & Co, who can confidently expect not only a strong seasonal return, but many profitable years of video sales to come. As they know better then anybody, a dog movie isn't just for Christmas, it's for life.

More or less a virgin when it comes to the new generation of voyages by the Starship Enterprise, I was favourably impressed by how much Star Trek: First Contact (12) turns out to be a rattling good thing, of its kind. It begins with a truly awesome zoom out from the eyeball of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) that travels mile after mile back into the cavernous interior of a vast cubical vessel, flagship to a literally single- minded race of baddies known as the Borg. Lest smarty-boots critics should be tempted to make a crack about how Borg sounds Swedish, the script already contains that line: it's comical as well as spooky. Attempts at rapid plot summary are, as the Borg say of resistance, futile: it's something to do with travelling back from the 24th to the 21st century so as to change history by making possible the first of mankind's warp-drive flights - and, hell, you probably need to have watched the TV series to understand it all, though not to find it fun.

Captain Picard, a cultured fellow who listens to Berlioz and can quote from Moby Dick at length, seems a tremendous improvement on that complacent porker Jim Kirk, and it is wonderful to see how Stewart's classical training as an actor enables him to bark lines about engaging the quantum torpedoes and recalibrating the positronic flux into the temporal vortex without cracking up. Jonathan Frakes, who also plays the Enterprise's No 1, directs; if he and his crewmates can keep up this standard throughout the series, it should live long and prosper.

Dirty old men, be cautioned: Acts of Love (18), directed by Bruno Barreto, which is being marketed as steamy stuff - and does in fact have a few tasteful nudie scenes - is really another rural gloom-fest. Adapted from Jim Harrison's novel Farmer (hmm, catchy title - wonder why they changed it?), it stars Dennis Hopper as a 47-year-old farmer-cum-schoolteacher. His life is so glum, what with a mother perishing from cancer and the imminent closure of his school, that he takes to bouts of naked copulation in the barn with an attractive but barking-mad girl (Amy Locane) from his class. It's a sensitive, minutely nuanced study of quotidian disappointments, realised through some tactful symbolism and mournful imagery. Yup, that boring.

Otherwise, this is Hispanic- twin week, with Andy Garcia playing twins in Andrew Davis's Steal Big, Steal Little (12) and Antonio Banderas as a roguish lover who has to pretend to be his own identical brother in Fernando Trueba's Two Much (PG). The former, which has bumped on and off the release schedules for months, is a well-intentioned, hopelessly incoherent tale of the land war between a humane ne'er-do-well (Garcia) and his slimy, unscrupulous sibling (Garcia). The latter is a would-be romantic comedy which grows progressively slower and less funny as it sprawls through its second hour: Banderas is railroaded into becoming the fiance of a rich vulgarian (Melanie Griffith; no com- ment), but falls for her middlebrow sister (Daryl Hannah), so poses as an artist. Your life will not be significantly impoverished by skipping both efforts.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.