In any genre of movies we like different films for different reasons. Some are pure entertainment. Others teach us lessons. Some help us empathize with others. Others are artistic experiences. Some have great special effects taking us to a new world and then others are just a lot of fun.
101 Dalmatians falls into that latter category. It is not one of Disney’s ambitious artistic masterpieces; although it certainly has it’s own style. But, it is an incredibly charming movie for the whole family. I watched it again today and literally every scene works. Every character is right on pitch for the story they are trying to tell. Disney’s more ambitious pictures will always be my favorites but 101 Dalmatians is it’s own version of perfection.
Released in 1961 101 Dalmatians had the unenviable job of trying to save the studio after the disaster of Sleeping Beauty. (It seems the end of a decade this happens for Disney. Always looking for that savior project!). Sleeping Beauty had taken 9 years to finish, was incredibly labor intensive and it did not turn a profit. Walt Disney at one point even considered closing down the animation department, as the live action Disney wing was doing very well.
Like so many times before Disney needed a hit.
The project actually began with Walt Disney. At this time he was minimally involved in the actual production but heavily involved with the storyboarding and brainstorming process. He had read the novel by Dodie Smith and really liked it. He then gave it to writer and illustrator Bill Peet and told him to come up with a script.
When Peet gave Disney the script he said it was ‘so perfect’ he didn’t need to be involved and handed the project over to Peet.
At the time a xerox technique had been invented where hand inking could be replaced by a camera that would copy the lines on the cells. They had tried using this for Sleeping Beauty but it didn’t look right.
Fortunately, the process looked great with black and white, black and white dalmatians that is!
This is why the style of the movie looks like a sketch book. It was where the xerox technology was and saved animators 1/2 the cost and time it would have otherwise taken.
The characters were also done using hand drawings and not the rotoscoping of previous films requiring human actor filming, which saved money as well .
On the xerox they used a spot pattern like a constellation and once they had one anchor spot they went outward. By the end of the movie they had animated 6,469,652 spots!
They also had a terrific villain that the author Dodie Smith said Bill Peet script had improved upon the book (that’s pretty cool to have an author say about a movie!)
Like Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians did very well at the box office and is still the only Disney animated movie to be remade (for better or worse). Although 2 versions of Jungle Book are coming (groan).
This is also the first time Disney had a movie set in the time period they were writing in. Previous movies had been period pieces or fantasy settings.
We start out being introduced to the male dalmatian Pongo. He tells us about his pet human Roger, who is a confirmed old bachelor. Naturally Pongo plays matchmaker after he spots a beautiful dalmatian and her equally beautiful owner.
Both pairs end up getting married.
Next we see wedded bliss and get introduced to Cruella De Vil who is a schoolmate of Anita. She is obsessed with beauty and furs. We also learn early on that she is an insane driver. Her voice performance is so funny.
She is such a great villain because she isn’t even in it for the money. She just wants to look good. The vocal performance by Betty Lou Gerson may be my favorite in all of Disney. It is so funny and over the top.
You will see in the scene above we get the main song in the movie which only has 2 full length songs- Cruella De vil and Dalmatian Plantation (which is actually not fully sung). It’s actually a pretty big departure for Disney to have so little music.
Cruella finds out when the puppies are delivered and this scene is just hilarious and I love the light in the doorway.
With no luck Cruella sends her goons Horace and Jasper out to steal the puppies in a pretty heartbreaking scene.
The humans try everything but to no avail so Pongo and Perdy send word through the twilight bark- a system of telegraphing information from dog to dog. What’s amazing about these scenes is the characters are only introduced for a moment or two and yet I like every one of them. I particularly like a set of horse, a dog named the Colonel and a Tabby Cat that saves the puppies on more than one occasion.
The Tabby Cat notices some movement over at the old De Vil place ‘Hell Hall’ (not too subtle on names here Cruella De Vil living in Hell Hall!). So they create a plan to get the puppies away. To their shock there aren’t 15 but 101!
Like I said, the Tabby Cat is pretty great and saves the puppies until Pongo and Perdy storm in!
I also like the thieves are watching a show called ‘What’s My Crime’ set up like a quiz show and a friend of theirs is the guest criminal. There are lots of little moments of humor in the movie.
The rest of the movie is a chase caper with various dogs helping the 101 Dalmatians, as well as some cows! The dogs outsmart the humans every step of the way.
I mean if that doesn’t melt your heart something is wrong with you!
They end up arriving at the house and a dalmatian plantation is in the works!
I think little kids respond particularly well to 101 because they can relate to the puppies. They are cute and kids like stories were children (or small puppies) are smarter than the adults. That’s why kids like Home Alone so much. I remember seeing Home Alone in the theater and laughing so hard I could barely breathe. I think you have some of that same spirit with 101 Dalmatians.
It’s also very well written. Bill Peet did a terrific job endowing every character with humor and a specific personality. It reminded me this go-around of the Toy Story movies where we get to know so many of the toys. Except this was even harder because at least the toys don’t all look alike. The writing had to be pretty special to make this story work, and they pulled it off.
Cruella is hilarious in every scene she is in. It is such a preposterous notion for someone to want to kill puppies to make a coat. I am no dog lover but even I know you don’t hurt puppies! With Lady and the Tramp the conflict came from other animals- cats, rats, etc. The humans were kind of incidental carriers of the animals. In 101 there is no real barriers between the dogs world and the humans and this is established right away with the courtship scene in the park. The two worlds are basically coexisting together and the story does not treat the dogs as any less because they are owned by the humans. In fact, it may be the reverse as Pongo gets the whole story going.
After my review of Lady and the Tramp I told a commenter that ‘for what they were trying to do it is about as good as they could make it’ but where that movie needed a stronger villain, 101 has that in spades and Cruella is one of Disney’s best. Mostly because her motives are so shallow and she is completely insane. It’s a great voice performance and the animators thought of ever detail down to her long icy cigarette and her crazy driving. She’s so much fun to watch.
So yes, it’s not Disney’s most ambitious artistic film but it does have it’s own style and I just think every choice they made was right. It is just about perfect.
Evidently Walt Disney was not a great fan of 101 Dalmatians because he felt it took them away from the fantasy and dreaming of earlier projects- was more pedestrian in feel. I’d agree but it still works. I wonder if this is why the movie is basically ignored at Disneyland? No rides or other attractions despite it making a lot of money.
Oh well. I love it!
Overall Grade A+