[Written for Film.com]
Shortly before the end of a promotional screening of 102 Dalmatians, an anxious Disney publicist leaned into the press row where I sat and announced that a couple of the film’s reels had been shown out of order. Did we critic types happen to notice, she asked?
Of course, reply my astute colleagues. I, however, keep my mouth shut. You could have shown me this shrill hunk of junk upside down and backwards, and I would have remained willingly obtuse.
A typical sequel from hell, 102 Dalmatians bashes sensitive souls into a self-defensive posture with its outsize presentation: screeching soundtrack, bullying storyline, manic performances. There is little reminiscent of the 1996 live-action version of 101 Dalmatians, an engaging love story that gradually added slapstick to achieve a certain comic lilt. That earlier movie’s class is not on display in this follow-up, which arms itself with audacity and then charges at the audience.
Gone, too, are Joely Richardson, Jeff Daniels, and Joan Plowright, who brought a certain gloss and warmth to 101 Dalmatians. In their place are a couple of good but lesser-known actors in dull parts: Ioan Gruffudd (television’s Poldark) and Alice Evans (10 Things I Hate About You) as a pair of dog-lovers who get in the way of Glenn Close’s returning villainess, Cruella De Vil.
Banking almost entirely on the niche popularity of Close’s hammy character, 102 Dalmatians has nowhere to go once the opening scenes make it obvious that Cruella (despite, or because of, radical psychiatric treatment) will soon blow a gasket and continue her wicked quest for a Dalmatian-skin coat. The rest of the movie is by-the-numbers: Cruella outsmarts everyone but her would-be prey, those cute and spotted pups who battle her in a cartoonish and gooey endgame. It’s as redundant as pre-chewed kibble, and as annoying as watching Rover hump your leg incessantly. Disney amps up the film’s un-pretty preposterousness with tacky support work by none other than Gerard Depardieu. (Does the House of Mouse own this big lug’s soul, or what? As memory serves, his few American projects have been for the one studio.) As a fashion maven and Cruella ally, Depardieu’s garish role is the low point of an already-hopeless enterprise.
Nominally directed by Kevin Lima (Tarzan), 102 Dalmatians is the flipside of a strategy that worked very well for Disney’s Toy Story II: i.e., if a sequel isn’t likely to be better than its predecessor, at least make it funnier or cooler or whatever. In this case, everything—including the blueprint for a valuable studio property made not once but twice (including the 1961 animated 101 Dalmatians)—was thrown out on a whim. The obnoxious result is deservedly forgotten.