Magazine article The Spectator

All Bark and No Bite

Magazine article The Spectator

All Bark and No Bite

Article excerpt

A year or two back, previewing Disney's re-release of the original 101 Dalmatians, I described it in these pages as a searing drama about a group of refugees from the former Yugoslavia attempting to flee the war-torn Croatian coast. A lady stopped me in the street a couple of days later and explained to me that I must have seen the wrong film: this one was about two dogs called Pongo and Perdy whose pups are kidnapped by Cruella DeVil in order to contribute to her new fur coat. Now Disney have made a new 101 Dalmatians and it's still about two dogs called Pongo and Perdy, the pups, Cruella, the coat, etc. Apparently, there's more than one way to skin a cat, but not a dalmatian. Still, as Disney would argue, when you've got old dogs like this, who needs new tricks? One of the company's distinguishing characteristics is its ruthlessness in pillaging its own back catalogue and, on the evidence of this and the recent Jungle Book, its films now aspire to the condition of its theme-parks, where actors unconvincingly wander around pretending to be well-loved cartoon characters. Thus, we are now supposed to accept it as an amazing improvement on the 1961 original that this time round 101 Dalmatians is no mere cartoon, but live action, with real dogs.

It's hard to see what's so great about that. Instead of talking, the dalmatians cock, as all showbiz dogs do, their heads to one side - an expression that can signify either puzzlement or sadness or annoyance or practically anything else, especially general winsomeness. This minimalist approach to the thespian art can work for some: one thinks of Roger Moore, whose eyebrows would also make a good coat. But here it fatally deprives the dogs of any character: which one's Pongo? Which one Lucky? The only way you can tell is from the close-ups on the name tags.

But that's nothing compared to the vapidity of the humans. You don't have to be barking to work in this film, but it helps. Jeff Daniels, whose exploding bottom in Dumb and Dumber is one of the finest acting performances in the history of the medium, is reduced to looking moonily at Joely Richardson: he's such a wimp that even his name seems weedy - Mr Roger Dearly. As Anita Campbell-Green, Miss Richardson is the vision of English loveliness, but the only whiff of sex comes not with Mr Roger Poorly but in the scene at the DeVil fashion house: as the predatory Cruella sweet-talks Anita, an unmistakable lesbian frisson shimmers across the screen. …

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