101 Dalmatians – Live-Action Film Series Retrospective
Over the past few years, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing Disney’s recent line of live-action remakes of their iconic animated films. However, what some Disney fans might not realize is that while 2010’s Alice in Wonderland is generally considered to be the film that started this current trend for the studio, it technically wasn’t the first time that a live-action Disney remake was made. Instead, that honor goes to 1994’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was released 22 years before Jon Favreau’s big-budget reimagining of Disney’s 1967 animated classic in 2016. However, for the purpose of today’s retrospective, we’ll be focusing on the other major live-action Disney remake that was made in the 90’s, 101 Dalmatians. It all began, of course, with Disney’s 1961 adaptation of author Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Upon its release, the film proved to be the much-needed hit that the studio needed after 1959’s Sleeping Beauty ended up being a bit of a commercial dud for them. Part of the reason why was due to One Hundred and One Dalmatians sporting a much smaller budget by comparison thanks in large part to a new animation process known as xerography. Developed by Walt Disney’s long-time collaborator Ub Iwerks, this system allowed for the direct transfer of the animators’ drawings to animation cels, thus avoiding the inking step of the classic ink-and-paint process, and while this method did result in the film’s animation not being as polished as other Disney films, it was exactly what the studio needed to keep production costs down. And with an overall lifetime gross of around $303 million worldwide (a total that skyrockets up to over $936 million when adjusted for inflation) and strong reviews from critics, One Hundred and One Dalmatians still stands as one of Disney Animation’s most highly acclaimed films.
But for many people, one of the biggest reasons for the film’s success was its legendary main antagonist, Cruella de Vil, a sinister heiress who kidnaps all but two of the titular 101 Dalmatians so that she can use their fur for coats. Since then, Cruella has easily been one of Disney’s most iconic villains, and sure enough, when it comes to the original film’s live-action remake, many would agree that the best thing about it is Cruella herself, portrayed by the legendary Glenn Close. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that for an entire generation or two, Glenn Close’s take on Cruella de Vil is generally regarded as the definitive interpretation of the character. But this past week, we saw a new spin on the iconic villainess as Emma Stone took on the role in Disney’s latest live-action reimagining, Cruella, a prequel-style story that delved into the events that made Cruella de Vil… well, Cruella de Vil. Glenn Close was still involved, however, as an executive producer, and so, in honor of the new film’s release, today we’ll be looking at the two films that gave us just one of the numerous iconic performances in Close’s career; the 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians. Now, as per usual with these franchise-based retrospectives that I do, we’ll only be focusing on theatrically released films, which means that we won’t be covering any other installments of the 101 Dalmatians franchise. This includes both of its animated TV shows (the 90’s series created by Doug creator Jim Jinkins and the newer 101 Dalmatian Street), the direct-to-video sequel 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, or Cruella’s appearances in shows like Once Upon a Time and the first Descendants film. And so, without further ado, it’s time to start playing Roger Radcliffe’s classic song that reminds us that “if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will” as we look at one of Disney’s initial attempts at making a live-action remake out of their animated filmography.
But first, just for fun, let’s go over the original…
ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (ANIMATED – 1961)
When I reviewed the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians on my own personal blog, Rhode Island Movie Corner, in 2016 as part of a series of retrospectives on Disney Animation, I noted that I found it to be solidly entertaining even though I admittedly found its second half, when Pongo and Perdita head out to rescue their puppies, to be better than its first. And when I ranked all 55 of the then-currently released films made by Walt Disney Animation Studios (this was right before the release of Moana, for the record), I ended up placing it right around the middle of the list at #34. Upon my most recent re-watch of the film for the purposes of this retrospective, I found that my thoughts on it hadn’t changed too much. That said, though, while I still think that the film’s best moments come in its second half, since that’s where many of the best humorous bits occur thanks in large part to Cruella and her bumbling henchmen Horace and Jasper, I’m a lot more positive about the first half of the film than I was a few years ago. At the very least, it does have its moments and it does a nice job of setting everything up (the relationships of both Roger and Anita and their dogs Pongo and Perdita, building up Cruella and her evil plans, etc.). And despite the whole thing about the xerography method of animation producing much less refined visuals compared to other Disney films, I think that this film’s animation is still quite good, for the most part, as it helps give it a charmingly old-fashioned look that fits in nicely with the story’s London setting. With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why the original Hundred and One Dalmatians is still widely considered to be one of Disney’s most beloved films. Though it’s not a ‘personal favorite’ of mine, there’s no denying that it’s a delightful comedic romp thanks to its unforgettable villain and that indisputable Disney charm.
101 DALMATIANS (LIVE-ACTION – 1996)
Looking at this film in 2021 after all the other live-action Disney remakes that have been made since then, one of the first things that comes to mind is how relatively modest it is as a remake. Basically, just like what the remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin did, this one presents a straightforward retelling of the original where the biggest changes are cosmetic in nature, such as Roger being a video game designer instead of a musician and Cruella being Anita’s boss rather than her old schoolmate. And unlike nowadays where it’s more common to see filmmakers using CGI animals to avoid getting into any situations that could put real animals in harm’s way, this film utilized as many real dogs as it could with only a few instances of CGI and some animatronics from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Really, it’s sort of more interesting to note some of the folks who worked on this film behind the scenes such as director Stephen Herek, who made the first Bill and Ted film and had become a regular director at Disney at that point with films like The Mighty Ducks and Mr. Holland’s Opus, and writer/producer John Hughes. Yes, this was one of many projects that Hughes worked on in the 90’s, although admittedly, this was at a point where many critics felt that his work was starting to delve into more juvenile territory given the overly slapstick-y nature of most of them. And yet, while this film certainly has some of those moments, I don’t think they’re as apparent as they are in some of his other 90’s films. In short, the live-action 101 Dalmatians is a lot like its animated counterpart. The second half is better than the first, Cruella is still a delightfully over-the-top villainess, and Jasper and Horace (played here by Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams, respectively) are just as hilariously bumbling as ever. Overall, I consider this to be one of the weaker live-action Disney remakes because it doesn’t do as much as some of the others to truly differentiate itself from the original, but it’s still a solid watch, especially if you’re amongst the crowd that grew up with it in the late 90’s.
102 DALMATIANS (2000)
Despite its mixed reception, the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians was a major success at the box-office, grossing over $320.7 million worldwide. Thus, a sequel was put into development soon after with most of the primary production crew returning save for John Hughes since the studio that he formed with Disney, Great Oaks Entertainment, ended up shutting down in 1997. It also saw a notable change in director since, just like Stephen Herek, Kevin Lima is another filmmaker who’s done quite a lot of films with Disney over the years. This is, after all, the same director who made one of the biggest cult classics of the 90’s, A Goofy Movie, co-directed the final ‘Disney Renaissance’ film, Tarzan, with Frozen’s Chris Buck, and helmed 2007’s live action/animated smash hit Enchanted. And yet, while John Hughes may not have been involved with this film, 102 Dalmatians is, ironically, the much sillier of the two, thus tying into the whole thing that I mentioned earlier about Hughes’ work taking on a campier tone in the 90’s. Simply put, a film that includes, among other things, a talking bird named Waddlesworth (voiced by Eric Idle) that believes he’s a dog can get incredibly damn goofy at times. But while this does mean that the film is basically geared more towards younger audiences, it’s still a decently entertaining family flick that has its charming moments. Plus, whereas the first film’s strict structural adherence to the plot of the original animated film meant that Glenn Close had a more limited screen-time than those who haven’t seen it might expect, this one gives Cruella a more prominent role in the story, thus giving us more of Close’s delightfully over-the-top antics.
But to me, one of the most unique aspects of this film… is the fact that I have more of a history with it than I do with its predecessor. A few years back when I did a retrospective on Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise, I noted that I technically had more experience with that franchise’s direct-to-video sequel Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves than I did the original Honey I Shrunk the Kids since the former frequently aired on Disney Channel. As for the original, my first proper viewing of it… was when I watched it for that retrospective. And yes, folks, we have an eerily similar situation with these live-action Dalmatians films. While I do believe that there’s a strong possibility that I did watch the first film when I was younger (even though I honestly can’t remember at this point), I watched 102 Dalmatians quite a lot back then. Granted, I don’t exactly recall seeing it in theaters (again, maybe I did, I don’t know…) but it was one of the first films that I distinctly remember owning on DVD along with its video game tie-in for the Game Boy Color, 102 Dalmatians: Puppies to the Rescue. So, with that in mind, I’ll admit that there may be some nostalgia-based bias when it comes to my thoughts on this film given everything that I just talked about, but overall, I think that 102 Dalmatians is a genuinely harmless follow-up that’s largely on par with its predecessor. Like I said before, though, this is also one of those instances where younger audiences will most likely get more enjoyment out of it than adults.
And that concludes our retrospective on the live-action 101 Dalmatians films plus a little bonus review of the 1961 animated classic that started it all. Thanks for following along and be sure to follow us @TheDisInsider on our various social media accounts to stay up to date on everything there is to know about Disney.