July 29, 1991 12:00 PM


What it lacks in romantic extravagance and plush spectacle, this 1961 Disney film makes up for in quiet charm and subtlety. In fact, if any movie with dogs, cats and horses who talk can be said to belong in the realm of realistic drama, this is it.

That’s partly because the relatively austere animation style and restrained use of color sober the tone. Even Cruella De Vil, the memorable villainess whose interest in Dalmatians is coincident with her interest in fur coats, is restrained in her way—she looks like a demonic Cyndi Lauper, but she’s only humanly evil, not a witch.

The plot, about a mother and father Dalmatian out to rescue their puppies from Cruella’s clutches, is perfect for a parent-child outing. Disney veteran Bill Peet, adapting a book by Dodie Smith, also dropped in some marvelous grace notes, such as having the puppies watching a TV Western in which the hero is a dog.

The Twilight Bark, a canine equivalent of the jungle telegraph that the dogs use to track down their offspring, is fun too. One pooch listens to the code, says knowingly, “One long how I, two short, one yip and a woof,” and knows immediately what to do.

Cruella storms “you imbeciles!” at her henchmen too often, and some children may be disturbed by the talk of dog-skinning. There’s only the standard Disney cartoon violence, though, and it hardly detracts from what is splendid entertainment for the 10-and-under set—and not too shabby for 20-and-overs. (Face it, folks, the only people in Dalmatians audiences between 11 and 19 will be baby-sitters and Bill & Ted fans who couldn’t find the right theater in the multiplex.) (G)

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