Arts: Hair of the dog

Cruella De Vil is not the first cartoon character to be fleshed out for the Hollywood box-office. And Glenn Close isn't the first top star to donate her body. So why do they do it? And who really benefits? Ryan Gilbey on 2-D into 3-D
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Glenn Close knows what it's like to be consumed by a role. In eight years, she has had no role as mercilessly memorable as that of the lover spurned in Fatal Attraction. Which is not to say that she hasn't done anything better. But the part has effectively squashed her: there she lies, pinned beneath it, like the witch crushed by a house in The Wizard of Oz.

This week, all that will change with the release of 101 Dalmatians, in which she plays the puppy-skinning villainess Cruella De Vil. Close can kiss goodbye to her image as a psychopathic ice-maiden, and say hello to one as... a psychopathic ice-maiden in a fur coat. She should be under no illusions: the role will swallow her. The best she can do is to suggest new depths to Cruella. The worst is to imitate her twitch for twitch. This is the curse of the actor who enters the world of the cartoon.

Close is the mascot of Disney's live-action re-make of their own 1961 animated feature. You can see her face on billboards, mugs, pencil-cases. The marketing campaign has branded her on the nation's consciousness in the manner of the Jurassic Park dinosaur silhouette, or the Ghostbusters ghoul. Close may yet rue the day she ever accepted the part. Not for fear of typecasting - play bad in any Hollywood blockbuster and you'll be lucky to escape the ghost of your own performance - but because the actor who chooses to "flesh out" a cartoon character always risks looking two-dimensional.

In fact, it's the sheer curiosity generated by actors imitating animation that draws us into such high-concept product. Can Robin Williams capture Peter Pan's impish, almost libidinous wink? How will John Goodman shape up when called upon to "yabba-dabba-doo"? Will Glenn Close be able to swan into a room wielding her cigarette-holder at just the right contemptuous angle?

These are the very questions that earn projects the green light. The cartoon-into-reality market would appear to be copper-bottomed, blessed as it is with the Holy Grail of film marketing: characters with built- in audience identification. Disney can bank on most of the people who fell for the original 101 Dalmatians returning for the new version. The numerous re-issues which the film has been granted in the 35 years since it first opened, not to mention its video release, will really pay off now.

But the history of the ink-to-flesh transaction is blotted with disappointments. Although Robert Altman's film of Popeye was one of the biggest failures in financial terms, it remains a rare example of an instance where live- action cinema actually enriched and embellished its animated source instead of simply mimicking it. Altman created a world apart from the original cartoons - baldly artificial, the film was saturated with fudge-coloured murk which suggested menace and ambiguity in the relationships between the inhabitants of Sweethaven.

Importantly, Popeye also helps to answer the elusive question of what an actor actually believes is possible when they sign on to such a movie. Both Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams assumed the broad mannerisms of their cartoon counterparts, and yet their scenes together suggested something that the original short Popeye cartoons never had room to hint at: humanity.

That's an important difference between Duvall and, say, John Goodman in The Flintstones. Goodman is constrained, rather then energised, by what audiences already know about Fred Flintstone. He gives a karaoke performance. But Duvall uses the cartoon Olive Oyl as a launch-pad for her own gently sympathetic interpretation. Goodman works like an impressionist. You sense that Duvall approached her part with exactly the same concentrated sensitivity that she brought to Three Women. (Warren Beatty tried a completely different angle with Dick Tracy, combining comic-strip art design with melodrama and managing to be loyal to neither.)

Therein lies a crucial rule. A film may have been inspired by a cartoon. But it's still a film. If it isn't cinematic, if it isn't valid on its own terms, if the cast approach their task like overpaid Mike Yarwoods - then all that will be embarrassingly apparent on a cinema screen. You can see it in The Flintstones and Hook, where impersonation far outweighs interpretation. If part of the supposed thrill for audiences is to see exactly how the familiar mannerisms of their favourite cartoon character is replicated by actors, then both those films would be found wanting - the actors look numb, hamstrung, lost.

Compare their behaviour to that of Jim Carrey in The Mask - a work so boundless in conception and technique that it renders the apparently radical idea of adapting cartoons utterly redundant. As do such grotesque, cartoon- look films as Delicatessen and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, which prove that not all directors feel the brush is mightier than the camera.

The Mask, though, doesn't have to contend so heavily with audience expectation. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, released last year, did. It tried to reclaim the story from Disney. But it wasn't animated in either sense of the word, and it looked positively tame beside Disney's 1967 version (which is most people's point of reference, despite the existence of the 1942 live-action film).

It's hard to see what kind of future is left for such remakes. With The Mask, and particularly this year's astounding Toy Story, the chasm that cinema always relied upon in order to bring heroes like Superman to the screen, has been bridged. We are no longer amazed to find that actors can pull off the stunts that were once the sole domain of Hanna-Barbera.

So don't be surprised if, while you watch 101 Dalmatians, you feel as cheated as you did when you started duplicating your vinyl collection on CD. There, at least, you were paying for improved convenience, durability and, theoretically, quality. But what does the money we spend on 101 Dalmatians buy us? Are we being served a new, startling, inventive take on an old standard? Or have we just been sold a pup?.

`101 Dalmatians' is on general release from Friday

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