It's fair to say that I had a good number of expectations going into 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure; that it would be kind of good was not among them. For which I do not think it's fair to blame me, because what about any of Disney's direct-to-video sequels to its classic animated movies, even more than its modern (i.e. since 1989) movies, would have led anybody to hold out hope that there might be a halfway decent adventure-comedy for kids to be carved out of that bedrock. Even moreso once you hear the plot description, and realise that not only is Patch's London Adventure another one of those damn Disney sequels that ties itself in knots trying to re-create the narrative conflict of the first film as closely as possible, in the handful of ways that it's not simply trying to splash a new coat of paint on 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians, it's basically attempting to re-make the other DTV sequel about a dog, Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure. Creativity is not, obviously, high on the film's list of priorities.

Even so, the story it tells is a mostly painless one, and not an entirely unfair attempt to extend the universe of the original movie: mere days or weeks after the events told there, London Dalmatians Pongo (Samuel West) and Perdita (Kath Soucie), along with their humans Roger (Tim Bentinck) and Anita (Jodi Benson), are preparing to move out to the country along with all 101 puppies rescued from the mad psychopath and fur fancier Cruella de Vil (Susanne Blakeslee). The attentive will recall that there were in fact ninety-nine puppies in the first movie, and that the extra two consisted of Pongo and Perdita themselves. The attentive will also recall that I described this movie as "kind of" good, not "actually" good, so there you go. Also, none of the shots that feel like they'd be establishing a huge cluster of puppies give any indication that there are even half of that number. So there you go again.

The two important things are these: Cruella has been released on probation, while her dimwitted cockney lackeys Horace (Maurice LaMarche) and Jasper (Jeff Bennett) have been sentenced to prison; in an effort to get over her obsession with a dalmatian-skin coat, she has transferred her fixation with spots onto the form of modernist painter and black-on-white specialist Lars (Martin Short), though this doesn't take; eventually, only kidnapping dogs and turning them into inanimate objects will do to scratch her itch, and before you can say "retread", she's bailed out Horace and Jasper and sent them to capture her former captives et cetera. The other important thing is that one of Pongo and Perdita's actual children, TV-addicted Patch (Bobby Lockwood), is sick and tired of being overlooked in such a gigantic litter, and upon learning that his favorite TV start dog, the German shepherd Thunderbolt (Barry Bostwick) is making an appearance in England, the puppy sneaks out to meet his idol. Thus he is nowhere nearby when his siblings and foster-siblings are taken, but instead watching with starry-eyed amazement as Thunderbolt - having been duped by his treacherous corgi sidekick Lil' Lightning (Jason Alexander) into thinking that his career is on the skids - tries to fake his way through being a hero. The thought that this movie might have actually influenced the development of Bolt makes me a little bit ill.

Absolutely none of what I just wrote is new in any way, shape or form; I bet without my even mentioning it, you mentally supplied the part where Patch and Thunderbolt have to save the puppies, with Patch learning in the process the difference between being a real hero and a TV hero. Nor is it given a particularly exciting facelift in this project, though the fact that the phrase "treacherous corgi sidekick" cropped up like that does strike me as a point in the movie's favor. What sets Patch's London Adventure above so many of its stablemates is, instead, that the movie actually has something resembling visual energy: the animation - by Walt Disney Studios Japan, and by far the best thing from that satellite that we've looked at in this whole retrospective so far - is relatively smooth and fluid, though being that this is a cheap product, there is of course none of the detailed, well-observed movement that was to be found in the original; the dogs are more like four-legged people than dogs, and I need hardly mention, I presume, that the new film's Cruella isn't worthy of being compared to the original version supervised by Marc Davis in his masterpiece as a directing animator; the flailing, manic energy of that character in Patch's London Adventure is strictly of a broad, slapsticky type, with none of the electricity of Disney's all-time best villain.

More than the animation, though, it's the colors and design; cribbed largely from the original movie, but that's exactly my point: this cheap, TV animation-level cartoon has actually seen fit to try to copy in some meaningful way the aesthetic of the film whose universe it is nominally inhabiting. That's not true of plenty DTV Disney picture; certainly, it's especial not true of the sequels to any of the pre-'90s films, which were instead retrofitted to the Renaissance-era style: Ariel's eyes, realistic, deep backgrounds, bold colors. Patch's London Adventure doesn't completely reverse this trend - the color palette is unabashedly that of a 2003 film, not a 1961 film - but it does whole-heartedly embrace the original film's idiosyncratic (for Disney) background plates, which look hastily sketched and watercolored. It's one of the most distinctive things about One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and I am please, inordinately so, to see it recreated here.

I can't emphasise this enough: this is still a made-for-video cheapquel. When I say things like "smooth and fluid", please remember that I'm grading on a curve. Nobody would ever mistake Patch's London Adventure for a real movie by a real movie studio. Its single greatest strength is that it is trying to pay some kind of honor to a much better film whose name and good character it is shamefully pilfering; but the mere fact that it honestly tries is pretty special. Return to Never Land didn't try. Cinderella II: Dreams Come True sure as a motherfucker didn't try.

There's another plus to this: the loose, bright style of this film, which doesn't read as trying to look like actual good animation (except perhaps for Thunderbolt, who ends up being the least visually interesting character), doesn't accentuate its own cheapness so miserably as so many of these films do; that is to say, while the film still looks utterly cheap, that doesn't seem to be nearly as much of an active, film-destroying problem here. This only goes so far itself: there are a lot of CGI-aided sequences, mainly chase scenes or other fast-moving tracking shots, where the gulf between the glossy effects and the limited production stands out in the worst possible way. But mostly, Patch's London Adventure doesn't try to overreach: it is spare and simple instead of just tacky and chintzy.

Wonderfully, this simplicity ends up helping the story to be not nearly as galling as it should be, and it should be very galling; bad enough that Cruella is back with more or less the exact same plot (it's a sorry state of things when the unlikable live-action 102 Dalmatians has a more credible idea about how to incorporate Cruella into the story organically and without falling into "do the same thing again" sequelitis), but irredeemably terrible that she digs up the same two thugs to be her bumbling sidekicks. And yet it's only a little bit bothersome; again, I suspect it's because the film's look makes so few demands on us (it's bright! it's childlike!) that it discourages us from demanding anything of it.

There are a few cute ideas scattered throughout (the Disney fanfare during the opening card is augmented by dogs barking in tune), no particularly strong vocal performances except for maybe Alexander, who captures the caffeinated urgency of a small yipping dog well; but also, happily, no bad vocal performances. Its feeble attempt at a new song to stand alongside the original's playful "Cruella de Vil" is a nonstarter - something to do with spots, I don't even remember - and the score is benighted by a single motif that gets repeated a whole lot, just a jingling little tune that is maddeningly hard to get out of your head once it sets up shop. It is, in all the important ways, inoffensive and unmemorable. But, still: inoffensive. It's a a cute, shiny, colorful tour through enough comic action that it starts to get wearying even at just a bit more than 70 minutes, and it is not pretending in any respect that it cares about doing more than entertaining children. I would not ever recommend it to anybody, but it does no serious damage to the glory of the original, and it didn't hurt to watch it. By this point in the history of the Disney sequel, I had largely forgotten what not-hurt even felt like, and for the example, I am grateful.