Stars: Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson, Joan Plowright, Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams. Written by John Hughes. Directed by Stephen Herek. Rated G.

Those of you who believe that Disney's magic touch is limited to their animated features have got a surprise in store. "101 Dalmatians" is pure cinematic ecstasy; a film that the whole family can enjoy without restraint. Although the story has been updated here and there, the basics have been preserved intact from the cartoon original.

Roger (Jeff Daniels) and Anita (Joely Richardson) are singles living in London who meet by accident when their Dalmatian dogs, Pongo and Perdy, send them headlong into a pond in an attempt to get together. Love soon blossoms and the singles become joyful newlyweds. Anita and Perdy both become expectant mothers around the same time, and a few months later Perdy gives birth to 15 beautiful pups.

It just so happens that the puppies are highly favored by fashion designer Cruella DeVil (Glenn Close), Anita's employer. Cruella wants to turn the diminutive Dalmatians, along with dozens of others, into part of her wardrobe. When the happy couple declines her generous offer, Cruella enlists two bumbling lackeys (Hugh Laurie, Mark Williams) to snatch the pups. Luckily, Pongo and Perdy are able to locate their progeny through a network of friendly animals and depart on a rescue effort.

Director Stephen Herek has taken the beloved tale of "101 Dalmatians" and made it his own creation. It is, at once, a loving tribute to and distinct from the animated classic. With a host of intelligent animals ranging from dogs to horses to mice to sheep to rabbits, the animal kingdom effortlessly takes center stage in this charming film. "101 Dalmatians" is wildly funny and inventive and is sure to be included on my list of the year's top films. It confirms my belief that the only thing cuter than a cartoon Dalmatian pup is a real one.

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