Actually, though this sequel is every bit as ersatz and perverse as the ghastly live-action 101 Dalmatians of 1996, it is, surprisingly, a lot more agreeable -- it's breezier and less oppressive. The earlier film was based on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a popular 1961 animated feature by Disney, which in turn was adapted from a Dodie Smith book. The animated version was pleasant enough, but is remembered less for its titular canines and more for its villain, the slinky, fur-craving socialite Cruella De Vil, who was desperate for a coat of many spots and who aroused the bloodlust of thousands of Boomer-era girls. So the remake was conceived as a showcase for Glenn Close's Cruella.
A logical enough approach. The trouble wasn't Close, who in her go-for-broke diva mode was quite impressive. It was, rather, the skin-crawly, genteel tone of everything else in the film, from the gooey bourgeois hero and heroine (Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson) to the creepy paternalism with which the surreal miracle -- one litter of a hundred-plus -- was proudly clucked over, as if it were a tribute to the male dog's virility and, by extension, that of his owner.
Happily, this '50s-style smarminess is far less apparent in 102 Dalmatians. The story gets rolling with a good, funny device: Cruella (Close again, of course) gets paroled after Pavlovian conditioning turns her, à la Alex in A Clockwork Orange, into a dog-loving philanthropist. She soon snaps out of it, of course, through an amusingly laborious twist, and is after her Dalmatian coat again, abetted this time by a nasty French furrier named Le Pelt (Gerard Depardieu). The costumes are by Anthony Powell, and he makes Close and Depardieu look as if they're ready for Mardi Gras on the Planet Mongo.
The romantic ingenues (Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Evans) are as insipid as Daniels and Richardson were in the first film, but at least the characters are useful working people this time -- she's Cruella's parole officer, and he runs the dog shelter at which the villainess is made to do community service. Tim McInnerny plays Cruella's cringing chauffeur, who struggles with his conscience, and Eric Idle provides the voice of a parrot who thinks he's a dog.
Make no mistake, 102 Dalmatians is suffused with the same anthropomorphism as 101 Dalmatians. It's not the legitimate, allegorical sort of anthropomorphism that threads from Aesop and Aristophanes through to that Brechtian wonder Babe, but rather the infantile, psychologically projected sort that's parodied in Christopher Guest's recent, brilliant Best in Show or in the recurring "Dog Show" on the current Saturday Night Live. The skewed, sexually frustrated couple played by Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell in that hilarious-yet-disturbing sketch -- they dress their terrified lapdogs in absurd costumes and make them the center of bizarre narratives -- would probably love 102 Dalmatians. They'd probably insist that their dogs loved it, too.
But if the film is a sappy view of canine nature, it's more skillfully sappy than its predecessor. Kevin Lima, one of Disney's top animation directors, here makes his live-action debut. While he can't avoid a bit of icky schmaltz, and he can't prevent Cruella's interminable slapstick come-uppance from growing tedious, his work overall is lively and visually imaginative. There's a particularly nice moment when Cruella, liberated from dreary beneficence, staggers through the streets of London seeing everything -- from streets and buses and buildings to her fellow pedestrians -- covered in spots. And then, of course, the dogs are awfully winning, especially Cruella's -- one of those hairless jobs who hates her guts and keeps a sharp eye out for opportunities to sabotage her. The canine protagonist this time really is a puppy called Oddball, who's white all over and feels inadequate alongside its blotched siblings -- surely the first Disney hero who's had to overcome spotlessness.