Is it possible that even a villain as mean as notorious London dognapper Cruella De Vil (Glenn Close) might be able to change her spots? Or is the aristocratic multimillionaire's transformation simply a dog-and-pony show, an opportunity for the world's most fabulously dressed ex-convict to masquerade as a do-gooder, the better to camouflage her dastardly intentions?
That's the question that plagues Chloe (Alice Evans), the cute parole officer assigned to Ms. De Vil, now calling herself Ella, in "102 Dalmatians." It's the conundrum at the heart of this pleasant if less than enchanting holiday-season diversion, a sequel to 1996's "101 Dalmatians," the lucrative live-action remake of the Disney animated favorite.
Still, the 1961 original, based on the popular Dodie Smith children's book, remains far more charming than either of the versions with flesh-and-blood characters. The youngest viewers might be better served by a close encounter with the classic version at home, on video.
Rookie live-action director Kevin Lima, who worked with Close on last year's animated Tarzan, nevertheless has ably assembled a reasonably compelling extension of the familiar story. It's a smartly designed production that capitalizes on the built-in appeal of the title characters and the shrieking, operatic, over-the-top performances of Close and Gerard Dépardieu, the latter as an evil French designer with ferociously bad taste.
Cruella's re-entry into the free world, as she emerges from prison in a gaudy black-and-white haute-couture version of a nun's habit, is nearly as stunning as her newfound moral resolve. Back home, among the fire-spitting gargoyles and portraits of ancestors that line her staircase, she vows to lock away all those old fur coats (although, tellingly, they're not destroyed). And she makes friends with a hairless pooch by the name of Fluffy.
Phase two of her very public rehabilitation is the bailing out of a dog shelter, a home for homeless canines run by Kevin (Ioan Gruffudd), a handsome nice guy with a crush on Chloe. Kevin's chief friends are scruffy reformed thief Ewan (Ben Compton) and Waddlesworth, a sassy macaw with the voice of Eric Idle. They, too, are gradually convinced of the noble intentions of De Vil, now a celebrity whose face is plastered on countless magazine covers.
Alas, not surprisingly, Ella morphs back into her former, evil self. Locks of her hair suddenly spring out of place, and her black fingernails extend, turning her hands into virtual claws. And in an impressive feat of computer-assisted design, people, buses and even buildings are suddenly covered with black-and-white spots.
For help with her new plans, she partners with furrier Jean Pierre Le Pelt (Dépardieu), a pompous fashion-world titan reportedly inspired by Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
The two baddies are made for each other, and so are Kevin and Chloe. The young lovers, whose first date is cross-cut with scenes from "Lady and the Tramp," spend the bulk of the movie trying to keep the canine grandchildren of "101"'s Pongo and Perdy out of the clutches of their would-be captors.
It all makes for a mildly amusing comic adventure, one that may best be remembered for the variety and invention of Cruella's costumes. What other movie would afford the multiple Oscar nominee the opportunity to make her exit as the baked-in prisoner of a three-layer cake, smeared with frosting and rainbow sprinkles? It's quite a sight.