Intermittently throughout the summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to a major new release. This week: Disney's latest live-action branding deposit, Cruella, finds everyone's favorite puppy-killing fashionista showing up in the flesh for the second time. The first time might not have been better, but it was a lot hammier.

Disney's 1996 live-action 101 Dalmatians is not good at all, but it does have two unambiguous strengths: Glenn Close's take-no-prisoners performance as a cartoon psychopath somehow embodied in human form, and the costume design by Rosemary Burrows and Anthony Powell that gave her the appearance of a dystopian futuristic cake topper while she was doing it. Its 2000 sequel, inevitably titled 102 Dalmatians, is also not good at all, and it has the same two unambiguous strengths, or at least nearly so; Powell received sole credit for costume design this time around, and thus got the film's solitary (and fully-deserved) Oscar nomination all to himself. So basically the same movie, only with a couple little adjustments: in 102 Dalmatians, Close is a little broader and more feverishly committed to the campy excesses of her choices, a little better at pulling the script along with her rather than just stepping outside of it; and the costumes are a good deal more garish and playfully unwearable and scorchingly colorful.

All of which adds up to this being obviously the better movie, which I think is not the consensus of opinion. That is presumably because 102 Dalmatians is much more transparently stupid and feels cheaper and shoddier, from its crummier CGI to the fact that Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, and Hugh Laurie are out of the cast, while Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Evans, and Tim McInnerny are in. Though I will have to insist, at least, that this film's score, by David Newman, has a bouncy vitality (stolen directly from Danny Elfman, but still), while the first film's score is just kind of generic kiddie comedy boilerplate. Regardless, I would contend that the quality level at play here is low enough in either case that "this crummy film is even crummier than that crummy film" is hardly worth counting, whereas "at least 102 Dalmatians is frequently very weird" means, at a minimum, that it feels like it has something much closer to a personality. Or to put it more simply: when the only good thing about your movie is Glenn Close screaming like a batshit crazy person, the more vigor she bringsΒ  to her batshittery, the more worthy the film is of bothering with. Even if I would probably not want to stake out the claim that 102 Dalmatians is, in any case, worthy.

The action picks up some three years after 101 Dalmatians, with puppy thief and disgraced fashion designer Cruella De Vil (Close) having just ended a course of experimental treatment with a doctor that the four credited writers collectively decided really should just be named Dr. Pavlov (David Horovitch), fuck it, creativity is for losers. Pavlov has figured out a way to force animals to put aside their natural predator/prey relationships, and making the murderous Cruella turn into a sunshine-and-rainbows puppy lover has been his greatest achievement. It's enough to impress the parole board, who set her lose under the care of probation officer Chloe Simon (Evans), who in the most stunning of a few stunning coincidences that get the plot rolling, adopted Dipstick the dalmatian who was one of the core 15 puppies involved in Cruella's dogskin-coat scheme back then. And Dipstick has recently become a daddy in his own right, with three puppies, of whom we only need to care about Oddball, the one who hasn't started showing her spots. Chloe will later say that Oddball is extremely self-conscious about this and needs to be treated with care for her fragile dignity, which is a hell of a thing for the woman who named the dog "Oddball" to say. Perhaps we are meant to admire her restraint in not going with "Freakshow".

The other primary coincidence: Chloe has another parolee on her docket, Ewan (Ben Crompton), who barely works at a terribly impoverished dog shelter run by Kevin Shepherd (Gruffudd), and this just so happens to be where Cruella, driven by her psychological conditioning to maniacally want to do low-paying charity work, ends up taking her own post-prison job. Chloe doesn't trust Cruella one inch, Kevin trusts everybody and everything far too much, and Ewan more or less evaporates out of the movie once he's done this one slender thing to move it forward. But really, does Ewan matter that much less than Chloe or Kevin or Alonzo (McInnerny, who played the same character with much less screentime in 101 Dalmatians), Cruella's lackey? Does it matter that GΓ©rard Depardieu gives the film its closest thing to a second good performance, as another psychopathic fur fancier, who peaks in his introductory scene where he's wearing a cheetah's head as a codpiece (to my shame, this struck me as the funniest joke in the movie)? We all know we're here for one solitary thing, which is to wait for Cruella's conditioning to wear off - it turns out that loud bells tolling reverts the conditioned animal back to its predatory state, and Chloe's office is like six inches away from Big Ben - and thence for her to return to the business of gathering adorable puppies to brutally murder them and carve the skin off their bodies. For laffs.

None of this is good, of course, and I haven't even mentioned the suffocating exhaustion of Eric Idle's vocal cameo as Waddlesworth, an English-speaking macaw who thinks he's a rottweiler - this was some years into Idle's mortifying descent into shlocky roles in bad children's entertainment, right around the same time that he was yoked into co-perpetrating the destruction of Disney's own Journey Into Imagination ride - which may not necessarily be the worst joke in the film, though it is certainly the most persistently annoying. 2000 feels on the late side for this particular breed of kid-friendly pratfalling and absurdity, and especially late for the dust-covered funk of the film's opening credit's song, a bastardisation of George Clinton's 1982 "Atomic Dog" by the name of "Digga Digga Dog". Its lyrics go like this:

"Digga digga dog,
"Digga digga dog,
"Digga digga dog,
"Digga digga dog,
"Digga digga dog,
"Digga digga dog,
"You dog, you."

But again, we are not here for Eric Idle's death march through poisonously unfunny one-liners that he doesn't even bother delivering in a bird voice (or a dog voice, though the funniest thing he ever does is to unconvincingly bark); nor are we here for whatever music the Disney executive in the late 1990s thought would be Hip With The Kids. We really and truly are just here for Close: Close when she is draped by Powell in glowing whites during her "Good Cruella" phase, where she squeaks and coos like a maniacal parody of Shirley Temple; Close when she has an Incredible Hulk-like transformation into Evil Cruella right before our eyes, convincingly suggesting a woman working immensely hard to seem even mildly close to normal, while desperate to let out a good villainous cackle; Close when she is belted into a skin-tight red tube of fire-shaped sequins, delivering lines that seem to act like coloratura arpeggios more than sentences; Close when she manages to make the ludicrous sight gag that ends her performance seem like a dignified comic choice. Sometimes, director Kevin Lima (an animator and animation director before being tied to this anchor - somehow, this was his prize for handing Disney the grand and handsome Tarzan the year prior) finds a good way to make the film's overall energy match Close's, most obviously when she has a freak-out, seeing all of London covered in dalmatian spots; in these moments, where 102 Dalmatians makes the journey all the way over to absurd camp, it manages to become honest-to-God good. And even barring that, there are moments that are at least not bad when they easily could have been, like Cruella's trip through a Rube Goldberg-esque torture machine near the end.

That being said, there are still plenty of moments that are bad - this is a tacky kids' comedy from a poor era for such things, and from a studio that did much of the work to make that era poor. And while I think that Close is certainly a pleasure to encounter, I cannot bring myself to say that the film is in and of itself worth watching. The best thing I can is that it absolutely should have been worse, and 21 years later, with the live-action Disney remake machine having become entrenched as more than just these two curios, 102 Dalmatians is, to me, comfortably entrenched in the top third of the dismal things. Heavily qualified praise, and it's all the movie earns - but it does earn it.