RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 25th January 1961
By 1961, over a decade had passed since the animation department at Disney was reborn with Cinderella. Animation techniques had been getting more refined with every release, and with the addition of television, live-action movies and Disneyland, the company was expanding into all kinds of new directions. However, things in the animation world were difficult. After the long and expensive production of Sleeping Beauty, which failed to recoup its costs at the box office, Walt felt like it was simply not financially viable to produce animated films anymore.
All the same, he promptly acquired the rights to Dodie Smith's 1957 novel as soon as he read it. The author herself was thrilled at the thought of Disney turning her book into an animated classic. The saving grace was a new technique using Xerox photocopying technology. Instead of the long and arduous process of tracing every single frame of animation on to a cel with ink, the new technology allowed the animator's original drawings to be transferred directly, eliminating the need for "inkers" and allowing Walt to dismiss hundreds of staff.
The plus side of this was that the film was substantially cheaper to create than Sleeping Beauty. The down side was that the visual style looked very "sketchy," and lacked the refinement that audiences had come to expect from a Disney movie. Gone were the strong fine lines, replaced with sometimes scratchy-looking pencil marks. This was not only reflected in the characters themselves, but the backgrounds were all given a very hand-drawn, pencil-ish look which was a far cry from the lavish backgrounds seen in Sleeping Beauty.
It's said that Walt himself disliked the visual style of the film. He much preferred the lavish and detailed look of the older movies. But times were tough (in 1960 the Walt Disney company had its first annual loss in a long time) and money talked.
Right from the opening credits, it's clear that this isn't going to be your average Disney movie.
You'll notice that after two movies in widescreen Cinemascope, we're back to good ol' 4:3 again. The story of One Hundred and One Dalmations takes place in London. A voice narrates that the main character, Pongo, lives with his "pet" in an apartment. The only problem is, his pet is fairly boring and needs to find a mate. (It turns out that the "pet" is actually the human and it's the dog narrating) Pongo thinks he's discovered the perfect mate and "arranges" a meeting situation.
The ruse works. The humans, Roger and Anita, fall in love and are soon married. Pongo and Anita's dog Perdita follow likewise.
What would usually be the "happily ever after" is just the beginning in this story, however! Anita's loud and overbearing old schoolmate Cruella De Vil busts into the scene. She is mad for furs, and suspicions begin to be raised when she shows an interest in buying Perdita's upcoming litter of puppies...
The day finally arrives. Fifteen puppies are born, although one doesn't quite make it. Roger makes a last-ditch attempt to save the little pup.
The little guy miraculously survives and from then on is known as "Lucky." At last the happy family is complete. The puppies begin to grow, but Cruella has her sights set on taking them away. Roger, in an act of unnatural bravery, stands up to Cruella and tells her that the puppies are not for sale. In a rage she screams that she will get them one way or another...
Some time later, the dog family is watching its favourite T.V. show.
Little do they know that Horace and Jasper, two hired goons, are waiting patiently for the right moment to dog-nap every single puppy while Roger and Anita take the big dogs out for a walk.
Their rotten plan succeeds. The puppies are dognapped and whisked away to Cruella De Vil's hideaway, Hell Hall. Heartbroken, Pongo and Perdy decide to access the Twilight Bark gossip network to see if any other dogs have heard of the puppies' whereabouts. They end up connecting with the Colonel (a sheepdog) and his soldiers Sergeant Tibbs (a cat) and the Captain. (a horse)
The Colonel sends Sergeant Tibbs to Hell Hall to see if there's any truth to the rumours. He discovers that not only are Horace and Jasper holding the 15 puppies hostage, but 84 others as well! He sneaks in and shows all 99 of them how to escape.
When Cruella discovers that her captives have all escaped, she is furious! While Pongo and Perdy race to meet their babies and bring them home, Cruella, Horace and Jasper race out to intercept them and bring them straight back to Hell Hall. The race is on!
The army of dalmations begin the long trek through the snow, hoping to make it back to London before Cruella catches them! They have many close calls but manage to stay just out of sight.
Exhausted, the dogs find their way to a farm barn where the friendly cows offer the starving puppies some fresh milk and a place to stay the night.
The following day the dogs continue on their journey. As Cruella and her goons get closer and closer, Pongo has the clever idea that if the dogs all roll in soot, they might be able to pass as black labradors!
Just as they find a homeward-bound ride in a truck, their disguise is busted and Cruella chases madly with her crazy driving skills!
A car crash later, and the dogs finally make it home to London, once again reunited with their pets.
Roger and Anita decide to keep the entire 101 dalmations and start their own "Dalmation Plantation."
IRVYNE: This is a really straightforward story. It's basically a "rescue-and-escape" tale. When you think about it, the main characters - Pongo and Perdy - are very simple characters that don't have a whole lot of personality besides "we love our family and will do anything to rescue them." Cruella is a wonderfully over-the-top villain who doesn't understand the meaning of the word "subtlety." She doesn't feature in a whole lot of the movie though, and while she is always enjoyable to watch, she only really has one mode as well. Horace and Jasper are amusingly stupid, and their scenes play like precursors to the Home Alone movies. All of the other characters are simple bit-parts that come on screen, do their scenes and then disappear.
I wouldn't say that the story is badly told (I appreciate that it's a very different style of film than what had been done before) but it lacks a lot of the humour that had become a staple of Disney films and it does seem fairly simplistic without many big surprises.
OK, let's approach the white elephant in the room. Following the stunningly beautiful Sleeping Beauty would be no easy task for any movie, but cost-cutting forced One Hundred and One Dalmations to adopt a completely new look, a visual style that took many people by surprise. Why could we suddenly see the animator's sketch lines? Why were the character's outlines no longer crisp and clear? Why couldn't the background artists paint within the lines? I understand that it was a very deliberate style that they undertook for this film, but I don't really like it. Look at the difference in detail between these two backgrounds...
The saving grace is the fact that the animation on the dogs is just lovely. Pongo in particular has a huge range of different expressions, and the puppies are adorable. Bottom line - the movie looks cheap, because it was cheap.
There's only one song in this whole film that anyone will remember, and that's the "Cruella De Vil" song that Roger writes early on in the story. It's a good, catchy song. Sadly, it's just about the only song in the entire piece, unless you count the "Canine Crunchies" T.V. jingle or the "Dalmation Plantation" song that is sung really briefly at the end of the film. The score is nice, but this is definitely not a movie that will be remembered for its music.
I like One Hundred and One Dalmations, but it's not Disney's best. The story is basic, the characters are basic, the songs is almost non-existant and a lot of the artwork is just plain ugly. (To my thinking, anyway...) Having said that, it's got a completely madcap villain who shows what happens when a character is completely unhinged and unrestrained. The film is still entertaining, but there are many other Disneys I'd prefer to watch.
SHENZI: Cruella De Vil. Such a punny name! And she comes from Hell Hall.
ANNA: And her evil henchman are always so incredibly stupid.