Two John Hughes staples – animals and pratfalls – are on display in his original, clunky-but-likable “Beethoven” (1992) and his slick live-action adaptation of “101 Dalmatians” (1996). The latter is the better film (and it’s perhaps why Hughes uses his own name there, and the pseudonym Edmond Dantes on “Beethoven”), but out of the two, “Dalmatians” also feels more like a mass-appeal product.
A basic family comedy centering on a work-obsessed dad, “Beethoven” is almost an exception to Hughes’ pratfall-based style in the Nineties. There are some, but they tend to be more playful and ridiculous, less violent. Co-written with Amy Holden Jones, “Beethoven” is a sweetly dumb kids’ movie through and through, featuring that almost foreign type of cinematic logic wherein, for example, bad guys do things because, simply put, they are bad.
“Beethoven” has a weirdly deep cast, with Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt playing a pair of dognappers who in most Hughes films would be mercilessly mangled. That’s not to say they come off well here, but the film is not built around the hilarity of bad guys getting beaten up. Patricia Heaton and a pre-“X-Files” David Duchovny are also on hand as corporate sneaks who experience pure cartoon pratfalls courtesy of the titular canine.
This film might be too much for very young kids, as one of evil veterinarian Dr. Varnick’s (Dean Jones) experiments involves seeing how exploding bullets perform on large dogs. Plus, there’s talk of putting down Beethoven. On the other hand, I suspect a certain sweet-spot demographic will be enthralled by these stakes.
Charles Grodin’s presence is the saving grace for adult viewers. The underrated actor’s face always makes me laugh, so he’s perfect as George Newton, the dad who didn’t want a dog in the first place and is irked by Beethoven’s antics. George often gets “slimed” by Beethoven (a St. Bernard named Chris) while wearing his crisply pressed suit.
For those of us who don’t have to clean up after him, Beethoven is easy to like. The big ole softie delivers food to a homeless dog (Aww). The Newton kids – teenager Ryce (Nicholle Tom), middle child Ted (Christopher Castile) and little Emily (Sarah Rose Karr) – love Beethoven the way all kids love dogs. Beethoven saves the younger kids from danger and helps Ryce get the attention of her first crush.
Brian Levant directs Chris reasonably well, and uses supplemental workarounds such as a camera’s-eye view for Beethoven. Soon after this, special effects would be employed to get a performance out of a baby in “Baby’s Day Out,” and out of animals in parts of “101 Dalmatians,” but “Beethoven” is all Chris, and it’s mostly better for it.
Hughes returns to a canine-centric yarn in the 1996 remake of “101 Dalmatians,” which is based on a book but best known by the 1961 animated version. More money and professional ability is on display in this slick Disney film, which features excellent live-action performances – led by the male and female Dalmatians owned by Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) – along with mostly believable CGI animals and some bad puppet work that’s easy to brush off. (It’s too bad they couldn’t have gotten the raccoons from “The Great Outdoors,” though.)
Directed by Stephen Herek, “Dalmatians” plays like two movies mashed together – first a sweet love story between Roger and Anita, who have a meet-cute in the park when their two pets seek each other out, not hindered by human-style awkwardness. The second half turns a barnyard’s worth of animals into the main characters, including horses, cows, rabbits, birds, etc. The production is nice, from the snowy London and countryside to Michael Kamen’s lively score.
Glenn Close chews scenery and finds it delicious as Cruella DeVil, a fashion magnate who aims to use the puppies’ pelts for a fur coat. DeVil is amusing to watch for adults, and I expect kids will find her appropriately scary.
Hughes returns to full-on pratfall mode in the final act, with Hugh Laurie as the smart one and Mark Williams as the dimwitted one. Hughes definitely has his go-to gags: When we see a warning for an electrified fence, we know the henchmen are in for a shock. But this film is a little different because instead of a kid or a baby or a forgetful scientist, it’s animals tricking the villains. Among the solid jokes, the bad guys are relieved when they are able to turn themselves in to the police, so horrible has their experience been.
The whole cast, animals and humans alike, is game for this romp. The abandonment of Roger and Anita to focus on the animals is unshakably weird; it’s too bad they couldn’t be integrated more, and perhaps this is a sign of the early days of CGI capabilities. But the animals’ teamwork to rescue the 99 puppies is adorable, and I stayed invested even though “101 Dalmatians” has arguably too many dogs (but of course they aren’t gonna change the title) and runs too many minutes (103).