One Hundred and One Dalmatians
***½/**** Image B- Sound A- Extras A
story by Bill Peet, based on the book The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi
by Bill Chambers 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (hereafter 101 Dalmatians) make for an illuminating double-bill; the latter could even be construed as a Godardian rejoinder to the former. An anti-auteur of these movies, Walt Disney determined their outcome by divesting resources from their development--including his own expertise--and pouring them into his personal Taj Mahal, Disneyland. This deprived the expensive Sleeping Beauty of the talent that may have been able to crack its deceptively-simple fairytale formula and transcend the limitations of a graphical style inspired by medieval tapestries. When the film barely broke even, Disney decided his next animated feature would adapt a property with some grounding in contemporary prose and cost a lot less, leading to the shuttering of the ink-and-paint department and a vigorous embrace of Xerography, whereby the animators' pencil drawings were photocopied directly onto acetate rather than delicately retraced and refined by hand.
This redefined the Disney aesthetic (which had until then consisted of linework famed for its impeccability as opposed to its immediacy), cutting out the middle-man in a way the animators themselves, at least, appreciated. In the case of 101 Dalmatians, it also inspired backgrounds that reflected the raw force of the animation--impressionistic sketches featuring a limited palette of colours that rarely adhered to the lines. Although Disney would ultimately hate them--maybe they reminded him too much of ex-employee Maurice Noble's innovative work on Looney Tunes--and kick himself for his derelict attention to this aspect of the production, there's no denying they have the opposite effect of Eyvind Earle's Sleeping Beauty backdrops, which Michael Barrier identified as lacking "emotional content" in his Disney biography, The Animated Man. "They never reflect or reinforce the emotions the characters are supposed to be feeling," Barrier writes, an ungenerous but not inaccurate appraisal.
Based on Dodie Smith's novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the weird particulars of which were fine-tuned to exploit the Disney sensibility1, the London-set film opens with dalmatian Pongo (Rod Taylor, arguably the biggest star to voice a cartoon character up to that point) contriving a meet-cute between his lonesome master, jingle-writer Roger (Ben Wright), and bookish Anita (Lisa Davis), who has a dalmatian of her own with an equally inexplicable Latin-sounding name, Perdita (Cate Bauer). Roger and Anita are married and Pongo and Perdita, in a clever sop to the puritans, appear to be joined in holy matrimony as well by their proximity to the wedding, and soon Perdita has a litter of fifteen adorable--and conspicuously American--puppies. (Innocence in Disney is rejecting the predominant accent of your homeland.) Everything would be hunky-dory but for Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), who wants a dalmatian coat and tries to procure Pongo and Perdita's offspring for skinning. When that fails, she goes the dognapping route, adding them to an 80-plus menagerie she's purchased from pet stores. That little detail is important: without it, Roger and Anita become criminal accessories at the end of the picture. Maybe they do anyway.
Enshrouded in plumes of dragon-green cigarette smoke, Cruella De Vil--with her shock of two-tone black-and-white hair (it says "skunk" more than it indicates duality), glass-cutting cheekbones, and birdlike frame, a glorified rack for her furs--was an instantly iconic villain, although it's easy to see why fashionistas and trendsetters might be tempted to emulate her unironically, since her personal style projects wit, class, and power in its singularity. She's the character other characters talk about in her absence; she gets her own theme song. The problems begin when she opens her mouth, and out comes a shouty, charmless performance that puts broad on top of broad; Gerson only aggravates the implausibility of this creature of affectation and Anita having been school chums--a fact, incidentally, that should make Anita more interesting, yet doesn't. All the characters are archetypes made lesser to some degree by speech, so it's shrewd if not uncanny of the filmmakers to gradually let the pictures do most of the talking. (I love that Roger is covered in symbolic ink spots after rejecting Cruella's offer to buy the puppies.) That's one of the reasons, if not the main reason, 101 Dalmatians has weathered the march of time better than many a Disney "classic," including Lady and the Tramp, an obvious precursor that dooms itself to antiquity with dialogue mired in the sexual politics of the day.
Indeed, there's a hipness to 101 Dalmatians that makes the scene of Pongo and Roger waiting nervously outside the "delivery room" for Perdita to give birth feel like a satire of contemporary mores instead of another stupid iteration of them. There's an edginess, too, as the picture flirts with miscarriage and the whole thing comes to embody a Holocaust allegory, with one specific breed of dog targeted for extermination, then relying on an underground network of animals to come to their aid and provide shelter.2 In a recurring image of kids having their imagination sparked and fraternal bonds strengthened by television programming not unlike the kind that Disney ground out to feed the networks' bottomless appetite, there is perhaps a synergy at work that calls for a cynical response, but the hominess of this tableau still feels amazingly generous in the context of the era, when film was waging a bitter battle against TV3--not to mention culturally savvy, considering the medium was still quite young and Disney had a policy against showing modern innovations in his animated works for fear the films would outlast them. All this burnishes the "crude" animation with sophistication, which in turn has an infernal energy that only makes more palpable the movie's sometimes-heartbreaking empathy for its canine heroes and the urgency of their plight.
In many respects, 101 Dalmatians is the Platonic ideal of Disney animation: it has cute, endearing anthropomorphic animals and a witchy villain you can actively root against, not merely scorn in the abstract; and it's a masterclass of the form, thanks to its undiluted presentation of the studio's best artists working at the peak of their powers. Walt Disney produced two more animated features in his lifetime, but with further-diminished budgets--101 Dalmatians was too much the sleeper success to have a positive short-term impact--and a renewed desire to intervene in their creation. (This was possibly mortal panic as much as ego or remorse.) 101 Dalmatians eventually became the second-highest-grossing Disney cartoon of all-time after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs4, and that's poetic, as they're true complements: the one, marking the de facto beginning of Walt Disney's career, proving his genius; the other, marking the de facto end of his career, proving the longevity of his brand. 101 Dalmatians isn't corporate art, though. It's lovely. Surprisingly suspenseful, too.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney's Diamond Edition Blu-ray release of 101 Dalmatians delivers the film at its native aspect ratio of 1.33:1 in a 1080p transfer. (A DisneyView option adds crap to the sides of the screen if those black pillars don't do it for you.) The obvious noise-reduction, for better or worse, smooths out some of the roughest edges of the Xeroxed drawings and does untold damage to the line-rich scenery; there's no small irony in the animators striving to make the TV shows-within-the-movie look authentically riddled with artifacts while digital restorers toil to erase evidence of 101 Dalmatians' own celluloid roots. The DVNR seems to ease up a bit following the opticals-dense, Saul Bass-ian opening credits, and there is almost certainly less than has become the regrettable standard for the studio's animation line, yet the image always cries out for sharper, more tactile definition. Fortunately, colour-reproduction is above average (given the picture's monochromatic cast and sooty, wintry settings, it's unexpectedly among Disney's more vivid recent titles), as is, critically, dynamic range. Whites could stand to be a touch brighter, but at least they don't run hot. Though lossy, the DD 2.0 mono presentation of the original theatrical mix is preferable to the 7.1 DTS-HD MA alternative, which overwhelms the somewhat brittle dialogue with modern-sounding foley. That being said, it does lend a nice plonk to George Bruns's snazzy Sixties score, and gooses the tension of the climactic set-piece with a low-frequency throb that's not ineffective.
Launching the extras exclusive to this BD is "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt" (2 mins., HD), a too-short sequel to the in-film cliffhanger serial, padded with clips recycled from 101 Dalmatians and animated in a hopeless simulation of the house style. On the plus side, it was overseen by Floyd Norman, who appears alongside other veteran artists in "Lucky Dogs" (9 mins., HD), a new retrospective that condenses the making-of material found elsewhere into a lean, clean 9 minutes. It's nice to see that Disney is honouring its own with prestigious Legends awards, of which interviewees Norman, Burny Mattinson, and Rolly Crump were recipients--albeit appalling to discover, via Wikipedia, that Regis Philbin got one before Glen Keane did. Hosted by kid actor Cameron Boyce, who could be Bobby Driscoll's bra-snapping little brother, "Dalmatians 101" (5 mins., HD) is a live-action listicle giving us the hard sell on a film we've presumably already purchased. Boyce's enthusiasm has a maliciousness to it that I guess makes him a natural to play Cruella De Vil's son in Kenny Ortega's upcoming Disney Channel movie, Descendants. Don't say I didn't warn you with every word of that sentence.
Last among the new supplements, "Walt Disney Presents: 'The Best Doggoned Dog in the World' (1961 Version)" (51 mins.) is a vintage, black-and-white episode of "Disneyland" hosted by Walt Disney himself, who sprinkles a laborious synopsis of 101 Dalmatians' plot with a soupçon of sexism (his miniature poodle was "the only woman in my family who truly understood me;" Dodie Smith is "a well-known woman novelist") before introducing the phony sheep-herding documentary that comprises the bulk of the piece. I sound dismissive but I'd actually love to see more of these turn up on disc, preferably with improved picture quality--the HD upconversion of a tape-based master just isn't cutting it here.
"Classic DVD Bonus Features" return, starting with the seven-part "Redefining the Line: The Making of One Hundred and One Dalmatians" (33 mins., SD). Featuring a familiar mix of admiring pros (Pete Docter, Brad Bird), historians (Brian Sibley, Paula Sigman), and eye-witnesses (some of whom appear in archival footage), it's a brisk, soup-to-nuts account of the production that credits the great Ub Iwerks with introducing Disney to the Xerox process, which Floyd Norman reveals was tested out on the dragon fight in Sleeping Beauty and in a short called Goliath II. Perhaps even more illuminating is the chapter on how the car stunts in 101 Dalmatians were shot using live models outlined in black to appear drawn(!). Similarly gratifying? The mini-appreciation of a tender moment between Pongo and Perdita, who's hiding under the stove (limiting the animators' options, to their benefit); and the segment on the Ken Anderson-supervised backgrounds--inspired, according to Sibley, by the British humour magazine LILLIPUT.
"Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad" (7 mins., HD) is mainly a contest to come up with the most adjectives to describe the title character--the very last one animated by original "Nine Old Man" Marc Davis. Cruella was the envy of Davis's friendly rival Milt Kahl, who tried his damnedest to top her with The Rescuers' Medusa. "Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney" (13 mins., SD) is a dramatic recreation of letters Disney exchanged with woman novelist Smith, who is, for what it's worth, considerably more cordial than P.L. Travers. "Trailers and TV Spots" and "Promotional Radio Spots" encompass a decades-spanning array of promos (including a teaser cropped for CinemaScope exhibition that suggests the film would've played well in widescreen), while "Music & More" contains a misbegotten Selena Gomez cover of "Cruella De Vil," the deleted Mel Leven song "March of the One Hundred and One Dalmatians," plus scraps of unfinished compositions by same and demo/alternate versions of his "Cruella De Vil" and "Dalmatian Plantation." A trailer for the upcoming Aladdin Blu-ray cues up on startup of the disc, bundled as usual with DVD and downloadable copies of the film.
1. The human hero of the book, for example, is an accountant granted lifelong tax exemption for fixing the British government's debt. For the record, Smith's never-adapted sequel, The Starlight Barking, is about an alien dog putting all the humans of the world into a deep sleep. She was an original!
2. I can't take credit for this observation (otherwise I'd probably harp on it more), which belongs to our own Angelo Muredda. But once he pointed it out to me, I couldn't un-see it.
3. In fairness, one puppy's life is endangered by the hypnotic lure of the idiot box.
4. Allowing for inflation, of course.