Movie 17: 101 Dalmatians

101 dalmationsIn 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.

The Story

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 occasiondalmatian midnight bark.

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 really like this tabby cat. He’s got guts!

tabby cat

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.

what's my crimeCruella finds out they have lost the puppies and becomes enraged.  I find it hilarious to watch this woman drive.

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!

My Review-

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.crazy cruela

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+

Movie 16: Sleeping Beauty


Sometimes I feel bad for Walt Disney.  Nearly every time he took a risk post-Snow White it was a failure.  And yet he’d do a safe movie like Lady and the Tramp (as great as it is it is not risky artistically) it was a big hit.   Visual artistic achievements like Fantasia, Bambi, Alice and Wonderland all did poorly at first at the box office.

Unfortunately with Sleeping Beauty we have another artistic risk and another initial failure . So much so they would not make another fairy tale princess movie until 1989, 30 years later!


In researching Sleeping Beauty I learned it was actually in development for some time (like most of the Disney films of the 50s).  Always wanting to try something new, Walt Disney liked the idea  of turning Tchaikosky’s ballet into an animated feature film, but things couldn’t quite come together and it remained on the back burner.  Finally in 1950 work was officially begun and at first things went quickly.  They even had all the voice work recorded by the end of 1952, which surprised me . But it makes sense because Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and it was opened in 1955.  Sleeping Beauty wasn’t released till 1959 .

For Sleeping Beauty Walt went with a new approach creating a “living illustration from Medieval artwork”.  We start out the story with a grand book and then it zooms in on the pictures until those images start to move.  Backgrounds were also created in layers almost like a scene from a play where panels are pushed in and out.

In this introductory scene you can see these layers.  Every person crossing the bridge including the juggler in yellow are animated separately.

This is the scene when everyone is put to sleep towards the end. It looks almost like paper dolls.
The backdrops also look like illustrations from a book

Part of this look is probably due to Disney’s delegation of responsibilities.  Much like with Mary Blair in Alice in Wonderland, Disney gave most of the creative control and design to lead animator and background artist Eyvind Earl.  His elaborate backdrops would take 7-10 days to paint while a normal film could be done in 1 day.

The paper look is also interesting because it is the first time they used a xerox method to make cells.  It was eventually abandoned because the lines weren’t good enough, but I think you can still see a little of it’s after effects in the film.

A lot of critics at the time criticized its artistic approach but I kind of love it.  It’s different and beautiful- like diving into a the pages of a book.

The character of Maleficent was meant to be the personification of all evil- basically the devil.  Her name is from maleficentia, which means evil doing in Latin (I love  that Disney had a film with Maleficent as the villain and the next with Cruella, not the most creative names but both work! I mean are you going to have a good person named Cruela?). She also has horns like the devil and her eyes glow like an evil spirit.  There is nothing wounded or misunderstood about her.  In this movie she is all bad but in an entertaining way.


The fairies were designed to be like Huey, Lewey and Dewey with 3 different colors separating them.  At first Walt wanted them to look the same but the other animators convinced him that would be boring.  Flora, voiced by the amazing Verna Felton, is the leader of the 3.  Fauna is soft-spoken and motherly and Merryweather is the spunky one.  For side characters they are actually pretty fleshed out- we see them cry, laugh, feud etc.


Phillip was created to be the first dynamic human male character in a Disney film.  They had wanted to make the princes in Snow White and Cinderella bolder but Disney didn’t feel like the animators could animate males well enough at the time.


One nice thing about Sleeping Beauty is we do see more of Philip than almost any other prince.  We see many sides to him- sweet, romantic, good dancer, but still courageous and strong.    For a long section Philip, the Fairies and Maleficent are the only people awake in the story- giving their characters a gravatas not found in many other Disney films.   I’m surprised boys didn’t respond more to Philip and Sleeping Beauty with it’s terrific action and minimal romantic dialogue?

The Story-

Most of you probably know the story.  It is the 14th century in a magical land.  A king and queen finally are able to have a daughter who they name Aurora.  She is to be blessed by the fairies at a large gathering.  It is almost like a giant birthday party for the whole kingdom.

Each of the fairies present their gifts to the princess.  Flora and Fauna are first and the gifts are shown in a bit of a surrealist touch (those Dali fans coming in again!).  I think it is a beautiful scene.

But before Maryweather can give her gift they have a visitor.  Someone who wasn’t invited to the party- Maleficent.  (word to the wise- if you have a sworn enemy don’t give them reason to be mad at you.  Invite her to the party!)  They ask her if she is offended at not getting asked…(This is a spectacular scene)

So to save Aurora the fairies come up with a plan to hide her away in a cottage in the woods.  They will use no magic so nobody will suspect.  The funny thing is if they know the curse is fulfilled at 16 why not send her away at 12 or 14?  Does she really need to be taken away from her parents as a baby?…I digress.

Next we see Maleficent with her goons and minions trying to find the child with no luck.

maleficentShe also always has her crow who seems to be a part of her magic.


So quickly it zooms ahead to the 16th birthday.   The fairies are planning a party and we get a humorous scene of them trying to sew and bake without magic (although you do wonder since they haven’t been using magic how have they gotten by for 16 years never cooking or sewing?).  Nevertheless it is a very cute scene.

They send Aurora out, now known as Briar Rose, and we get to hear her sing.  The score is actually all from the ballet, and  the songs are minimal.   However, the singing they did get is beautiful.

There is then a comic scene with the forest creatures that is cute but to me feels a little too campy for the artistic style of the movie.  It just doesn’t fit in.

animalsNot knowing they are betrothed royalty, Aurora meets Prince Phillip and they dance together in really the only song in the picture aside from the hail song at the opening.  I love it.

Aurora and Phillip agree to meet later that night but when she returns home the fairies tell her she is being taken to the palace.  Aurora goes but with a heavy heart.

We then get an unnecessary scene between the two kings drinking and toasting their children who are to be married.   The Kings get a little tipsy along with the lute player.


Next you see her getting ready in the castle and this scene with the color of her face and Maleficent’s eyes is one of Disney’s best.

I love when she says “Did you think you could defeat me: the mistress of evil?”.  One thing that worries me about the 2014 version is they are softening her up.  They have to in order to create a prequel,and most of the time that doesn’t work (think Star Wars prequels…).  Maleficent is basically the devil.  In fact, she is proud of her loathsomeness.  Later on with Prince Phillip she see’s it as her shining hour.

Not everything needs a softer side. Most of the time softer means bland.

So Aurora pricks her finger and is put to sleep.  This is a perhaps unavoidable problem with Sleeping Beauty is that most of the time the princess is asleep.  Snow White had some of this problem.

Sleeping-Beauty-disney-18543904-640-360However, you really feel for the fairies in this scene, so that makes up for some of Aurora’s blandness.  The fairies could have been such cliches but the writing is quite good and we really get to know them.

Flora decides to put the entire kingdom to sleep with Aurora but just before Phillip’s father mutters about a girl his son met in the woods.  Flora realizes it is the boy Aurora met earlier and they fear for Philips’s safety.

Unfortunately Maleficent has beaten them there and in a great scene traps the prince taking him away.

Phillip gets locked in the dungeon and he and Maleficent have a terrific scene together I wish I could find.

maleficent and phillip2Thinking she has gotten her revenge and the Prince is going to rot away in her dungeon she walks up to her lair and has a great line ‘I shall finally be able to sleep well for the first time in 16 years’.  I mean who can sleep when revenge and evil is on the docket?

The fairies help Philip and give him the sword of truth and shield of virtue.  (those names seem right out of King Arthur.  Really fit 14th century well)

Now that is a great Disney hero!

Finding out she won’t be able to sleep we get this amazing scene- without a doubt one of Disney’s best.

It’s also actually Flora that really saves the day, which I kind of like.

I love that her body isn’t even there.  She’s like road kill on the ground.

dead maleficent1Then we get our happy ending and it is a wonderful story.  And for the record, I like her better in blue!

Movie Review-

Are there flaws in Sleeping Beauty?  Yes, the princess is bland.  The fairies schtick is laid on very thick.  The woodland animals don’t work for me.  The drinking scene with the kings is unnecessary.

But there is a lot more right.  I love the strong prince . I love Maleficent.  Watch On Bald Mountain in Fantasia and I think you will agree in personality and design Maleficent is basically the devil from that picture as a woman- even down to the minions.

A lot of people hate the style, but  I like it.  I think it is an interesting take on storytelling and beautiful in its own way.  I also like the Tchaikosky score.   It gives a lightness and flow to the piece that works.  Once Upon a Dream, while one of the only songs, is lovely and sung very well.

I like there is action and a great villain who really tests the characters, pushing them to their limit.  I also remember it was the first time I had ever heard a character say the word ‘hell’ in a movie.  It was pretty scandalous!

I honestly can’t imagine any kids not liking Sleeping Beauty.  It is without a doubt one of their best.

Overall Grade- A

My sister and I for Halloween.  She was Marywether and I was Aurora.
My sister and I for Halloween. She was Marywether and I was Aurora.

Movie 15: Lady and the Tramp

Lady-and-tramp-1955-posterNext we may be talking about the cutest Disney movie they have ever produced, 1955’s Lady and the Tramp.   While I prefer Disney’s more ambitious, riskier endeavors I have a place in my heart for the sweet and sentimental pictures too.

I mean I am not a dog person but your first glimpse of Lady is pretty adorable:

baby ladyProduction-

In the 1940s and 50s dog pictures were very popular for families.  Film series like the 3 Lassie movies (and TV show starts in 1954), and a series called Kirby Grant Chinook the Wonder Dog were very successful.

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It also should be obvious to anyone who has been to Disneyland that Walt Disney had a fondness for turn of the century wholesome small town Americana.  Lady and the Tramp was released a month before Disneyland opened and we can see it’s influence in the film and perhaps the films influence on Disneyland.

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Joe Grant, a Disney animator, had an English Springer Spaniel and he was telling Walt about how the dog had been shoved aside a little bit when they had their first baby.  He then worked on sketches of this idea for nearly 20 years from the 30s through the 40s, but Walt Disney didn’t like any of the projects presented to him because there wasn’t enough action, enough for the characters to do.

Then Walt heard of a book called Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog by Ward Green.  The only dog in the book is the Tramp, but Walt liked it and combined it with Joe’s idea and began work in earnest on Lady and the Tramp.

The artistry in Lady and the Tramp isn’t abstract or different but it is beautiful in it’s own way.  It looks like a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

jim dear and darling

The fir also looks great on all of the dogs and they all look adorable while still looking like their obvious breeds. I say that knowing very little about dogs.

Lady-and-the-Tramp-2The voicework is excellent.  I particularly like Jock and Trusty.  Jock is a scottish terrier voiced by Bill Thompson in a full Scottish accent and Trusty is a bloodhound voiced by Bill Baucon

Lady and the Tramp is the first movie to be released by Disney in Cinemascope and it was a huge hit for them.

The soundtrack was also one of Disney’s most successful with songs written by Peggy Lee.  She  sings in He’s a Tramp, La,La,La and Siamese cats .  There is a jazzy feel to the whole soundtrack that I love.

The Story

The story begins with Lady being given as a gift from the male owner (Jim Dear) to his wife (Darling) as a Christmas gift.  The beginning zoom in on the window with the Christmas tree is right out of Currier and Ives scene.

Lady is petted and pampered until a baby comes into the picture and she is warned by a mongrel called The Tramp that this will lead to no good. She ignores it but starts to get nervous when she see’s some changes.

Then one Sunday the Darlings decide to go away and Aunt Sarah comes to take care of the baby.  She is voiced once again by the amazing Verna Felton; although, this is a smaller role for her.

aunt sarah

Aunt Sarah is well meaning but she does not care for Lady and brings 2 rather disagreeable cats.

siameseI don’t know what cats ever did to Disney but he seemed to have it out for them!  I guess Figero in Pinocchio was a nice cat.  Still not many!

The strange thing about the Siamese cats is they come in, sing their creepy song, and then you hardly see them again in the movie.  The end of the movie the rat is the villain not the cats which seems strange.  Why not use a villain if you’ve already got them set up with a song.

I also think it is the first time a villain actually sings a villain song.  Something that would become a Disney staple later on.

Like almost anything Hollywood did in the 50s with Asian characters the song does fall prey to stereotypes and is a kind of creepy but not always in a good way.

It doesn’t bother me the way the Red Man song in Peter Pan did because it is brief and the characters are standard villain.  It doesn’t try to explain the Siamese race like Red Man does.

If it bothers or offends you I totally understand but it is easy to skip over.

However, I do like the cats slithering, slimy nature.  I’d be nervous if they were around me slinking around (although doesn’t take much for me to be uncomfortable around strange animals).  That’s why it is such a surprise they aren’t seen again in the movie.

So Lady protects the baby from the cats and Aunt Sarah takes her to the pet store to have a muzzle put on.

Curious_Lady_MuzzleI mean the inhumanity!!

She runs away and meets Tramp.  He helps her remove the muzzle and they end up eating some Italian food in one of the most famous scenes in all of Disney:

However, after their romantic night (feel funny saying that about dogs!) Tramp looses Lady and she ends up going to the pound.  Terrified she meets an assortment of characters that are a lot of fun.

But it starts out very sad and if this doesn’t pull at your heart strings you may want to examine yourself… 😉

She also meets Trixie who tells Lady all about The Tramp:

Now that is a great song!  Peggy Lee is wonderful and what a neat way to introduce kids to the whole idea of jazz music.

Learning about all of this Lady breaks up with Tramp when she see’s him and Aunt Sarah chains her to the doghouse.  There’s a cute scene where Jock and Trusty propose to Lady to keep her safe.

That night Lady see’s the rat going into the baby’s room.  Sarah tells her to stop barking but The Tramp hears her and goes after the rat, upsetting the room while he does it.

When Sarah see’s it she sends The Tramp to the pound but Trusty and Jock race after the cart, saving the day.   Luckily Sarah see’s the rat and Jim Dear and Darling come home and everything is made right in time for another Christmas. (This is definitely the most holiday themed Disney movie)

Movie Review-

Lady and the Tramp is kind of a like a popsicle in the summer.  It’s sweet and sticky but you love it anyway.  Everything about it is so well done.  The backgrounds are picturesque and pretty, voice work is great, dogs are super cute, jazz soundtrack is fun, and there is that great spaghetti scene.

It’s not the Disney which is going to challenge you or frighten younger kids.  It’s just a sweet simple story told with a lovely color pallet and a lot of charming dog characters.

I do think 101 Dalmatians is a little bit better because of Cruella but it is also a lot scarier for very young kids.  This is the Disney movie you can watch with kids under 5 and I’m not sure you can say that with any of the others.

So yes I know it isn’t perfect but I like it.

Overall Grade B+