Original Release: January 1961
Runtime: 79 Minutes
Directed By: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman
Its interesting to research the history of all of these films because you quickly find that Disney ran into financial troubles quite frequently. Our image of Disney today is as a huge corporation with buckets of money pouring out of their magnificent castles, but this was not always the case. After Sleeping Beauty, which cost far too much and made far too little, there was actually talk of closing down the animation division of Walt Disney Studios. As you can imagine, Walt didn’t want to do this as it was his baby and had gotten him off the ground. In what seems a bit like a last ditch effort, the studio basically decided that if princesses weren’t going to win over the crowds, they’d try for something that had proven to be successful; dogs. More dogs than before though. Go big or go home, right? So began the making of 101 Dalmatians.
101 Dalmatians was based on the book ‘The Hundred and One Dalmatians’ by Dodie Smith, who, unlike P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame, had hoped that the book would get into Walt’s hands and that he would one day make a film out of it. Once the rights were obtained, Walt wasted no time in putting Bill Peet in charge of writing the story for the film. This marked the very first time that a Disney film was written by a single person. Walt took a big step back from this film as he always referred to Peet’s original draft of the script as ‘nearly perfect.’ Even Dodie told Peet that he had actually made her story better and that she liked the artwork for the film more than the original sketches in her book.
This was also the first film to employ a new process known as Xerox photography. Essentially, this meant that the animators work could be transferred directly to the cells. This meant that the cells themselves no longer had to be hand inked, which saved on time, and consequently, money. Because of this, Dalmatians was far cheaper to produce than the previous film, Sleeping Beauty.
This was especially important as it made it affordable to color in all the spots on the dalmatians, which would have been far too expensive with the old process. All dalmatians accounted for, there were exactly 6,469,952 spots in this film, Pongo had 72, Perdita had 68 and each puppy had exactly 32.
Walt was known to have not liked the artistic direction of this film, which has a very sketchy, rough look to it that I absolutely loved. He felt that it was getting too far away from his original fairy tale like dream for the company’s films. Art director Ken Anderson said that before Walt’s death, during their last meeting, Walt forgave him for this. Hopefully he realized that the art style of this movie was wonderful and marked a new direction for Disney as a whole.
Let’s get it all out in the open. I loved this film! As you might know from my Lady and the Tramp article, a film about dogs is an easy win for me, but there’s more to it than that. Let’s start with the art style. Everything just pops. at times, you can almost see the rough pencils of the artwork and this gives it a great feel of a moving sketch. Nowadays, animators have to create this effect but back then it was a side effect of the new Xerox style. There’s also an overcast grey to the world that just feels so alive. Previous films were bright and colorful but this world feels like you’re actually in London. The rain makes you want to cuddle up on the couch with some tea and the snow looks like you could actually sled through it. This isn’t even mentioning the dogs which move with great fluidity and seem even more alive than those of Lady and the Tramp.
Pongo is a superb main character. From the opening monologue of him sitting at his window and talking about getting his pet, or owner Roger, a mate, this character is instantly likable. He was voiced by Rod Taylor, an Australian actor who’s voice is hypnotic, making us want to hear every word. The opening sequence deals with him just watching out the window and judging girls and their dogs as they walk by but somehow this really solidifies this character instantly and makes me want to know more about his life.
Roger and Pongo are equally lovable. Roger is a song writer with a very funny edge, but a lovable heart. Anita, Rogers wife, and her dog Perdita are also delightful. I really like that we see these characters invested in strong relationships and we watch as both couples support each other through the difficult times of the film. I think in the slue of romances and princes and loves at first sight, it’s a welcome relief to see a couple which is together, supportive of each other despite issues with money and crazy old college friends, and also a couple which feels like they could be real human beings.
All of these characters are great, but we haven’t even mentioned the star of the show. Cruella De Vil is easily the most evil villain we’ve seen yet. I know what you’re thinking, “But Jaysen, what about Maleficent???” Yes, Maleficent is evil, like really evil. But she’s only evil for the sake of being evil. Cruella is real world evil. She’s sly and has too much power and money. She wants to make a coat out of puppies! I don’t care how many spells Maleficent casts on princesses, hoarding puppies for the soul purpose of skinning them and wearing them is ten times more evil. Cruella laughs with such furosity and the way her big fur coat falls from her tiny shoulders when she gets worked up all make her feel like the kind of woman you avoid on the street for fear that she’ll have you knocked off. She commands your attention when she’s on the screen and she strikes fear even into those of us who do not have fur skins.
There are so many characters in this film to enjoy. In fact, many of the cast of Lady and the Tramp make cameos in this film as well, joining in the Twilight Bark, which is a form of communication among the dogs of London. Here we see Peg.
And if you look closely here you can see both Lady and Tramp.
Two of my favorite characters happen to be the Colonel and Sgt. Tibs, an old sheep dog and his feline best buddy. They are so ridiculous at first glance as they try to interpret barked out messages, but they soon become quite heroic. In fact, Tibs might just he bravest character of the film as he helps the puppies escape from their prison at Hell Hall, where they are being held by Horace and Jasper. Watching this little cat save all these puppies sure does make me want to be a cat person…almost.
That reminds me, Horace and Jasper are quite a pair. They’re definitely some of the roughest folks we’ve found in a Disney film so far. They spend most of the movie smoking and drinking, though let’s be honest, the only person not smoking up a bad case of lung cancer in this movie is Anita. Horace and Jasper are interesting because not only are they villainous towards our heroes, but they are also villainous towards each other, hitting each other and bullying each other. At one point, Jasper actually puts cigarette ash into Horace’s sandwich. Seriously Horace, there are better friends out there. Again, I love the movement of these two, especially the way Jasper walks, like he’s tired or his legs are crooked. It has such a great authenticity about it.
A few things stick out as a little odd in this movie that I just want to touch on. First of all, the Twilight Bark sequence is quite long. It feels like twenty minutes of dogs barking to each other across scenic backgrounds. It’s a neat idea but by today’s standards it definitely drags. Another thing is Rolly. I get it, he’s fat. He eats all the time but he says the line, “Mother I’m hungry” so many times that by the end I actually wanted Cruella to get him just so I didn’t have to hear it again. And also, the puppies feeding off the milk of the cows. It’s natural. I’m sure I’ve watched a few youtube videos with similar themes but for some reason it stuck out as a moment that I turned my head away. Not sure why it made me so squeamish but it did. Also, whatever happened to Cruella? Was speeding off the road into a snow bank really enough to make this mad woman give up on puppy coats? I could have used a “Oh I give up! Puppies aren’t worth the time,” line to wrap it all up.
The real hearts of this movie are the puppies. They are so flipping adorable and each of them really manages to have a personality. In a film where all the dogs could have been clones of each other, this stands out as the most impressive. The puppies move differently and act differently and you know just what sort of mischief they’ll get into later on because they are so well established from the start. This is what makes 101 Dalmatians so wonderful, because in a film with so many characters, none of them ever manage to get lost in the fray and I never felt overwhelmed. From puppies jumping in soot to puppies treking through snow to puppies drinking cow milk, I just couldn’t get enough of them.
101 Dalmatians was a success at the box office, partially due to the fact that the film was far cheaper to produce than earlier films, but also due to the fact that it is just so fantastic. It lends itself to marketability and having a ‘favorite’ dog and it once again captures that idea that Lady and the Tramp managed to bottle. Just what are our dogs doing when we’re not looking? Dalmatians is a huge success and I’ve come to find that many people have never seen it. If you are one of those people, go out and grab a copy right now. Need more selling points you say? The opening sequence is a bunch of dalmatians whose spots jump off to show the credits. There’s a cat that salutes neurotically and The Colonel refers to the puppies escaping Hell Hall as a “Hullabaloo.” If these things don’t sell you, then you’re a lost cause.
Next Up: The Sword in the Stone
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!
Categories: Vault Disney