In the late 90s and early 00s, Hollywood sequels were one of the places where bad taste and camp excess really shone. With the world-building out of the way, films like Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous were free to riff on, and critique, their originals, with a freedom that would never have been permitted in a flagship release. 102 Dalmatians squarely belongs in that category, but its flamboyance is a bit more surprising for unfolding in what was, at least nominally, a children’s feature. Where 1996’s 101 Dalmatians alternated between the schmaltzy couple of Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, and the crazed intensity of Glenn Close’s Cruella, the sequel is all De Vil. Not only does Close go full throttle now, but she’s joined by Gerard Depardieu, an actor who is always prepared to render himself ridiculous, and who finds the perfect canvas for his courage here.
Whereas 101 Dalmatians was largely indebted, story-wise, to the original Disney film, the sequel goes off on a zany trajectory all its own. From the outset, this is high camp, as Ian Richardson, playing a prison guard, leads us to the prison cell of Cruella de Vil. No sooner does Cruella return to the real world, having overcome her obsession with fur, than Lima introduces the absurd kernel of the film: the chime of Big Ben somehow causes addicts to revert to their former ways. What ensues often plays like a Universal horror film on speed, as Cruella starts by dumping her furs in a dungeon-like cellar, and nailing the door shut, only to break it down after succumbing to Big Ben, like a monster that has to accept her inner nature.
From there, the film situates itself between the rawness of punk and the glamour of new wave and disco – a cue that 2021’s Cruella takes up by imagining De Vil in the guise of Vivienne Westwood. Close’s Cruella starts out punk, but eventually leaves this style to her antagonists, who run a grotty shelter for stray dogs, before fully embracing the more baroque stylings of the late 70s and early 80s, culminating with a fashion show set to Chic’s “Le Freak.” That said, 102 Dalmatians never feels like a period piece, or indebted to the past. Instead, this cusp between punk, new wave and disco becomes a way of distilling a peculiarly British camp, more concerned with the artifice and affectation of being British than “authentic” identity. The fact that Close is American only enhances this sense of watching a camp fantasy of Britain.
In that hyperbolised space, the relation between humans and animals is denaturalised, defamiliarised, dissonant and atonal. Time and again, the film goes for cute, and drastically fails, opening up an anarchic vision of human-animal relations – the same continuity between man and beast that you often take for granted in animation. We meet a dalmatian puppy born without spots, who feels ashamed of his clean white skin, along with a macaw who thinks he’s a dog. Even when this parrot learns to use his wings, he still identifies as a dog: “I’m flying – dogs can fly!” In the comic climax of the film, the macaw saves a dalmatian by scooping him off the ground, and yet even this moment, which emphasises the distinction between canine and avian skill sets as never before, leaves him unfazed: “I’m not a rottweiler, I’m a retriever!” With these indiscriminate and promiscuous overlaps within the animal kingdom, the film’s recurring claim that “dogs are humans too” is soon elevated to ever more bizarre implications.
As in 101 Dalmatians, Cruella overtly embraces this anarchic cusp between human and animal life. This time around, her fur addiction is presented more frankly as a fetish, which she plays out in her lurid exchanges with Depardieu’s character, French furrier Jean-Pierre LePelt, who informs her that “I am the Napoleon of the fur and you are my Josephine.” Cruella now regularly bathes with her dogs – “Come Fluffy, we’ll share a bath, an interminable soak” – while her desire to wear fur migrates into a more perverse longing to be inside dogs, to feel what they feel and act as they act, along with, more implicitly, a predilection for the bestial.
Yet Lima isn’t content to merely amp up Cruella’s unruly investment in animals. For the great joke of 102 Dalmatians is that the obligatory normcore couple, the descendants of Daniels and Richardson in the original film, are even more perverse in the way that they relate to their pets. Not only do parole officer Chloe (Alice Evans) and dog rescue operator Kevin (Ioan Gruffudd) meet and bond over their pets, but these animals provide them with instructions about getting together. Whether it’s dogs nudging them towards each other, or the macaw giving them instructions to kiss, their pets take on the burden of libidinality, operating like the couple’s subconscious even or especially as they seem to sanitise their romance. The endless saccharine proliferation of pet kitsch both normalises the couple, and opens up a bestial element in their relationship – a continuity with animal romance, or even a desire to embark upon interspecies romance. The couple converse to each other in exactly the same way they converse with their pets, while Lima intercuts their first date with their dogs watching Lady and the Tramp at home. Right when the animated dogs share pasta, Chloe and Kevin share pasta, as if they can only imagine a relationship against the approving gaze of their animals.
So anarchic and freewheeling is this space between animal and human desire that the film has to somewhat disavow it at the end, which means disavowing Cruella as the emblem of it. Accordingly, a final set piece reduces her to an ornament, a decoration, and a decorous femininity, as she is subjected to a ritual humiliation in an industrial cake factory – rolled through all the ingredients, bundled into the oven, and then projected into a store window. The white puppy’s spots finally come in at the same moment, but this return to a regulated inter- and intraspecies dynamic can’t quite overcome the film’s excessive jouissance, and so the final note is a horde of dalmatians spraying icing on Cruella, as the leader of the pack drools on her face, leaving us suspended on the strange and queasy cusp of our own animality.