& & by Ed Symkus & & & &

It's been four years since the folks at Disney tore up the box office with their first live-action remake of one of their own animated features. And while the second 101 Dalmatians didn't quite have the charm of the cartoon, it was certainly entertaining and energetic and, as far as sequels go in the movie business, sure looked to be the perfect film to segue into a second.

Naturally, the film will work better for anyone who saw the first one, because this time out, everything focuses on Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close, once again putting the art in the art of overacting), who was arrested for dognapping at the end of 101. Now, three years later (in film time), after some behavior therapy from a Dr. Pavlov (pretty lame joke), she's deemed cured and let back out into the streets of London, with some provisos: She must not go near any fur, she must do 500 hours of community service, she must never dognap again; if she does, her fortune will go to a rundown dog shelter.

Yet, just knowing that she's the film's bad guy and that she once had horrific plans for making a coat out of Dalmatian puppies will suffice to set anyone up for this story. Then again, it's highly doubtful that anyone champing at the bit to see this hasn't seen its predecessor anyway.

Cruella's release is the film's setup. Its plot, though, centers on two other people. There's Chloe (the perky Alice Evans), who is Cruella's probation officer as well as owner of Pongo and Perdy's son Dipstick, who is the mate of Dottie, and their offspring, Domino, Little Dipper, and the spotless Oddball (don't try to keep score; just know that they're dogs.). And there's Kevin (Ioan Gruffudd), a fellow who's eking by with a rundown shelter for stray dogs, the same shelter that Cruella is on her way to "save."

But, this being a Disney film, all things can't be going right; there's just got to be some evil involved, in order to have a happy ending, in order to have something for good to triumph over. Of course, it's Cruella (isn't it always a woman in Disney films?), whose therapy reverses itself when she hears the chimes of Big Ben. Suddenly she's back on track to get that coat of her dreams, and now she has a cohort, the furrier Jean Pierre Le Pelt (Gerard Depardieu, in one of his more embarrassing roles; if his entrance, "dressed" in leopard skin isn't enough, he's later dumped headfirst into a toilet).

All of this is fine for the kiddies in the audience, from the cute puppies running around to the talking parrot -- make that the conversing parrot, and it's strange that no one in the film thinks it odd that they're speaking with this bird (voiced nicely by Eric Idle). The film also features the return of Cruella's hapless valet, Alonso (Tim McInnerny). The problem is that the slapstick that's thrown at him, mostly by the horrid Cruella and sometimes by the frisky dogs, is rather mean-spirited. He doesn't just take some bumps -- he's assaulted, and he's hurt. It's okay for him to slip and fall down, but it's less than okay for his hands to then be run over by a car. This business goes way beyond being funny and ends up in areas of -- just like the villainess' name -- cruelty.

But a wise word of warning in advance from parents will probably prevent any trauma that might occur among the tots watching, and for the most part the film spins along with those young viewers in mind. And just like in 101 Dalmatians, it's dogs, not people who save things in the end. Actually, it's a Rube Goldberg-like machine scene that saves things in a too-drawn-out last act.

And the highlight of the film is something that's going to please adult and kid viewers equally, for very different reasons. After -- no surprise -- Chloe and Kevin meet, they go out for dinner at an Italian restaurant and both order spaghetti and meatballs. Back at her place, a bunch of dogs have gotten together to watch a video of Lady and the Tramp. Anyone who's seen that film will remember the spaghetti scene, which is shown here as a similar one is being played out between the two people in the restaurant. Kids will think it's funny, adults will find it touching. And it is both.

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