Sigmund Freud would probably make much of the fact that the most memorable of all Walt Disney’s animated features derive at least part of their enduring legacy from a keenly wicked villainess. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) is no exception. After a coyly romantic beginning we are introduced to, arguably, the most deliciously perverse of all Walt’s wicked witches with a capital ‘b’ – Cruella de Vil (exquisitely vocalized by Betty Lou Gerson). But ‘Dalmatians’ is a tour de force for a number of other good reasons as well. First, for the studio’s brilliant mimicking of the UA impressionist/minimalist style in animation introduced by DePatie-Freleng. Second, it marked the full-out launch of the Xerox-process (briefly experimented with for the dragon fight climax in Sleeping Beauty 1959). Arguably, Xerox ‘revolutionized’ the art by introducing a more graphic quality to traditional hand drawn cell-animation. Regrettably, it also streamlined the process, Walt electing to close his ink and paint department forever shortly thereafter. ‘Dalmatians’ was also a departure from the time-honored fairytale – its story set in then contemporary London. Ironically, the movie has not dated ever since. Finally, there was the conscious decision to move away from the ‘musical’ animated feature (Dalmatians has only two songs – both instantly hummable, each written by Mel Leven).
There’s no getting around it. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was ground-breaking for the studio, even if Walt was not particularly impressed with production/art designer, Ken Andersons’ block-colored backgrounds. Perhaps Disney was still mourning the loss of his own highly romanticized visual lushness pioneered as ‘the Disney look’. Time, however, has proven Anderson understood the material at hand; perhaps even better than Walt this time around. With the Xerox process, animators were able to see their own work on the big screen for the very first time. In traditional animation the art, as it appears on screen, is twice removed from its origins; first sent to the ‘clean-up’ department to smooth out rougher lines, then retraced onto clear acetate and hand-painted by yet another pair of hands. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of ‘Dalmatians’ is the influence exerted on the finished product by one man: story editor, Bill Peet. As a veteran at the studio, Peet single-handedly laid out virtually all the action – shot for shot, angle for angle, and, cut for cut from start to finish; his exemplary quick-sketched plotting uncannily adhered to without fail by the animation team.
One Hundred and one Dalmatians is, of course, based on the novel by Dodie Smith; a dog lover who owned several Dalmatians herself, one of them not surprisingly named ‘Pongo’. The kernel of an idea for Smith’s story came to her when a friend, visiting the authoress at her home, remarked how Pongo’s spotted mane might make an elegant fur coat. The idea had merit – at least for a clever story about this sadistic diva/furrier obsessed to possess the one-of-a-kind pelt. Walt’s acquisition of the novel was perhaps predicated on his success with Lady and the Tramp (1955); the first canine classic that had proven wildly popular with audiences. However, in the interim Walt had diversified his empire to include live-action movies, television programming, and the debut of Disneyland; the mogul’s time and energies being pulled in many different directions all at once.
At the same time, Walt had good reason to be wary about the future feasibility of animation after the elaborately mounted Sleeping Beauty failed to recoup its production costs. Herein, it would behoove the reader to remember Sleeping Beauty was not a financial failure per say. In fact, it was one of the most patronized movies of 1959, second only in revenues to MGM’s multi-Oscar-winning, Ben-Hur. Unfortunately, as Walt had done a decade earlier on Fantasia (1940), he had invested more time (six years) and more capital ($6 million) on this penultimate fairytale classic than its single release could sustain. At the same time, movie-making costs on the whole were skyrocketing. Therefore, One Hundred and One Dalmatians marked Walt’s concerted efforts to make necessary budgetary cutbacks in order to ensure the movie’s success. Even so, he absolutely refused to scrimp on the level of quality.
Some of Walt’s economizing can be seen on the screen – most noticeably in his decision to photograph One Hundred and one Dalmatians in 1.33:1 (less time to complete artwork as opposed to the more elaborate layouts required to fill the expansive Cinemascope/Technirama 2.35:1 screens). In retrospect, ‘Dalmatians’ lacks the visual resplendence of Walt’s earlier efforts – partly due to the crudeness of the Xerox process. And yet, the rougher drawings perfectly compliment the film’s contemporary settings as well as the monochromatic design of all those yapping puppies. Xerox also abetted animators given the special assignment of keeping track from frame to frame (remember, there are 24 film frames per second to fill) of the more than thirty spots dotting each Dalmatian’s shaggy coat.
The Visual Effects Department, under Ub Iwerks, also indulged in a bit of trickery to expedite the animation process. Photographing three dimensional models of all the vehicles (Cruella’s roadster, Horace and Jasper’s moving van) against a black background, these still frames were later rotoscoped onto cells. For the moment when Cruella mercilessly plows her car into a snow bank, real granules of sand were used to mimic snow, the roadster model photographed as it was being dragged on a string through the mini embankment. As an interesting aside, the animation created for these sequences would later be reused as Madam Medusa’s harrowing trek through New York in The Rescuers (1977). This process of recycling older animation was encouraged by Wolfgang Reitherman and first begun in ‘Dalmatians’. As example, keener eyes will likely be able to spot alumni from Lady and the Tramp, including Scottish terrier, Jock making a brief appearance; also Peg and Bulldog (seen through the plate glass window of a London pet shop) and finally, Lady herself, marching across the cobblestone streets at the beginning of ‘The Twilight Bark’ sequence.
In hindsight, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a novel tailor-made for Disney adaptation; simple and affecting. Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) and confirmed bachelor, Roger (Ben Wright) – an aspiring songwriter – meet Anita (Lisa Davis) and her Dalmatian, Perdita (Cate Bauer) while on a frenetic jaunt through the park. After some initial badinage, Roger and Anita are married and set up housekeeping in a modest London flat. Enter Cruella de Vil (Betty Lou Gerson); Anita’s old college roomie. Designed by Marc Davis, Cruella is undeniably a Disney villainess in a class apart from the rest; a manic and, as it turns out, maniacal creature, mad with jealousy; her skeletal face, spiked B&W hair and bony, angular features sheathed in an overabundance of fox fur. Incidentally, Cruella de Vil would be the last piece of animation Davis – an immeasurably gifted draftsman – would commit to Disney animation.
After spying Pongo and Perdita’s stunning spotted fur, the old gargoyle gets a novel idea. Why not make a coat from the skins of their, as yet unborn, puppies? Naturally, Rogers and Anita are against this idea. So, Cruella hires a pair of clods; Horace (Frederick Warlock) and Jasper (J. Pat O’Malley) to dognap the pups and bring them back to her dilapidated country estate – Hell Hall, where ostensibly she’ll have them ‘poisoned, drowned or bashed in the head.’ Unable to achieve satisfaction through the various ‘human’ channels at their disposal, Pongo and Perdita initiate ‘the twilight bark’ – a coast to coast hook up of yips, yowls and full-bodied barks that eventually reach old Towser (Tudor Owen) – the country hound dog who forwards the message on to Sgt. Tibbs – the pussy-cat (David Frankham) and his superior, the Colonel (Thurl Ravencroft). News eventually reaches the Pongos that their fifteen puppies are being held at Hell Hall, along with eighty-four other captives corralled from various pet stores.
Pongo and Perdita elect to run away from home, their trek across the countryside impugned by increasingly bad weather and a violent snow storm. Reaching Hell Hall in the nick of time, for Cruella has decided tonight for Horace and Jasper to begin their mass slaughter of the puppies, Sgt. Tibbs and the Colonel create a diversion; the Pongo’s invade, and Horace and Jasper are momentarily subdued. Cruella is as determined as ever to recapture the escapees. Scouring the countryside, she discovers that Pongo has concealed their identities by rolling around in the soot of a nearby blacksmith’s shop, thereby providing the perfect camouflage as Labradors. Unfortunately, melting snow from the rooftops begins to wash away their disguise and Cruella makes chase in her roadster with Horace and Jasper in hot pursuit, driving their moving van. Of course, being the clumsy oafs they are, the pair ends up slamming into Cruella’s car; all three forced off the road and into a snowy ditch. A short while later, Pongo and Perdita are enthusiastically welcomed home by Roger and Anita, the revelation that their family has grown to 101 inspiring Roger to suggest they’ll all move to the country to start a Dalmatian Plantation; thus bringing our story to a close.
From start to finish, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a charmer; refreshingly, a departure from Walt’s formulaic fairytale fodder. Indeed, the film ventures farther into the 20th century than any other Disney animated feature to date. By comparison, Lady and the Tramp remained quaintly ensconced in its Victorian bric-a-brac, while Dumbo (1941) takes place during the depression. Despite its’ lack of songs, ‘Dalmatians’ nevertheless has that ‘of the moment’ swingin’ sixties motif going for it, perhaps most enthusiastically expressed in George Brun’s jazzy underscore showcased during the opening credits. It’s a tour de force moment even before the narrative gets underway, Bruns’ orchestrations punctuated by large black spots used to represent everything from billows of smoke coming off a tug in the Thames, to musical notes dotting an eight bar measure as Bruns’ own screen credit appears.
In totem, the vocal talents on display complement each character spot on (pun intended); particularly Betty Lou Gerson’s Cruella de Vil (whose physicality and mannerisms were modeled on character actress, Mary Wickes). But it’s Gerson we hear; Gerson, whose voice comes to embody this wretched dog assassin with her wicked cackle and frenetic energy suggesting genuine insanity; a woman of means, motive and murder on her mind. Rod Taylor’s Pongo is the other standout; his inimitably smooth, though masculine, voice lending an air of easy-going sophistication and authority.
Apart from its stylistic backdrop and mystery narrative bloodline, in effect, devolving into one gigantic - if boisterous - race against time, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is as appreciated for its rather glib poke at the TV generation – television itself, still comparatively new and very much the movies’ arch nemesis. Perhaps Walt, who had had the clairvoyance to embrace this medium a decade earlier (well ahead of the rest of Hollywood), pumping out successful series like Disneyland, Zorro and Davy Crockett, also wanted to share his reflections on TV as something of a sublime, colossal joke. The Kanine Krunchies commercial and ‘Old Thunder’ half hour adventure that so enthralls Pongo, Perdita and their puppies is, after all, a rather hilarious take on the serialized adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie. Later, we see Horace and Jasper completely captivated by the game show, ‘What’s My Crime?’ – an even more transparent homage to, ‘What’s My Line?’
In the final analysis, One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a huge box office hit for Walt –foreshadowing the future direction Disney animation would take for at least another decade and a half, before its triumphant return to the fairy tale in 1989. Miraculously, One Hundred and One Dalmatians doesn’t seem to have aged in the interim. Yes, the TV spoofs have dated. What were then contemporary in-jokes about popular programming are now quaint reminiscences from a simpler television age. But the central narrative is as fresh and vibrant as ever. Here is a gentle, often convivially joyous story, infused with the vitality of young love, an appreciation for family, and, a deliriously obnoxious villainess given her comeuppances. While, arguably, there is more proficient animation to be had elsewhere in the Disney canon, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a celebration of style perfectly melded to substance. It lives on because it doesn’t take itself too seriously – only the art of animation – which is formidably on display herein.
For one reason or another, Disney Inc. hasn’t come around to releasing One Hundred and one Dalmatians on Blu-ray in North America just yet. Virtually all of the other Disney classics have made their way to hi-def on this side of the Atlantic except ‘Dalmatians’ and ‘Aladdin’. Thankfully, both are readily available in the U.K. and feature ‘region free’ transfers that positively sparkle. Bottom line: for a little bit more and a click of a mouse via Amazon.com, both of the aforementioned titles can be yours to own.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians looks spectacular on Disney Blu-ray. The image is crystal clear and void of the studio’s rather heavy-handed DNR liberally applied to both The Sword and the Stone and The Jungle Book. Herein, we get refined, bold colors. Fine detail is extraordinary, showcasing the thick black line graphic style in all its glory with no hint of edge enhancement. There are even instances where the rough pencil lines are visible – fantastic! The moody, dark navy and cerulean hues during the ‘twilight bark’ sequence’ look spectacular. Wow – and ‘thank you’. This is 1080p done right!
The 5.1 DTS audio is remarkably aggressive, particularly in George Bruns’ underscore. While Disney hasn’t added anything beyond the extras included on their previously issued DVD Platinum Edition, what’s here is commendable; including ‘Redefining the Line’ – a superb ‘making of’ documentary whose only sin is that if fails to mention any of the talents who provided the voices in the movie – save Lisa Davis who was the voice of Anita. There’s also a short on the design and creation of Cruella de Vil, a brief introduction from Walt Disney himself, trailers, promos and other press junket material, and finally, Selina Gomez’ music video for the song ‘Cruella de Vil (Trust me…you can skip this one – or rather…should!). Bottom line: One Hundred and One Dalmatians is required viewing. This one belongs on everybody’s top shelf.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)