One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman
Pongo is a rather bored Dalmatian living in a London apartment with his human, a struggling songwriter named Roger. To alleviate the boredom, Pongo attempts to find mates for the both of them, and succeeds: soon Roger is married to Anita, and Pongo is expecting puppies with Perdita. The night that Perdita gives birth (to a litter of 15), Anita’s old college roommate Cruella De Vil shows up, demanding to buy the entire litter. Roger and Anita refuse, and Cruella leaves angrily.
A few weeks later, two of Cruella’s henchmen break into the apartment and steal all the puppies. Pongo and Perdita use the “twilight bark”, a gossip service for dogs, to track them to an old house in the countryside. They run away from home to attempt to rescue their children. Meanwhile, a tabby cat working for the Colonel, an old sheepdog who reported the puppies’ location back to London, breaks into the house and helps the puppies to escape, along with dozens of other Dalmatians bought from pet stores around the country.
Joining up with all of the escaped puppies, Pongo and Perdita begin to sneak them back to London, while being chased by Cruella and her goons. They eventually manage to board a moving van headed back home, with Cruella in hot pursuit. Her henchmen accidentally wreck her car, allowing the entire troupe to make it home safely.
The failure of Sleeping Beauty nearly proved disastrous for the company. Disney reportedly seriously considered shutting down the animation department entirely, and instead committing the company to just live-action movies and the theme parks. If Disney Animation was going to continue, they needed to find a way to produce features in a timely manner, at a much reduced budget.
Enter (or re-enter) Ub Iwerks. Iwerks had been one of Disney’s earliest animators, and was in fact the co-creator of Mickey Mouse. He’d had a falling out with Walt Disney in the 1930s, however, and only returned to the company in the 40s to work on special effects animation and the technical side of things. He’d been the one to develop the techniques for integrating animation and live action in things like The Three Caballeros and Song of the South.
More recently, he’d been playing around with a Xerox photocopier, which had just been released commercially for the first time. He managed to come up with a way to get a Xerox machine to print directly onto an animation cel, so that the animators could go straight from pencil sketch to cel coloring without having to ink the cel first. Disney didn’t really like the results all the much aesthetically – the pencil lines were still quite visible even after the cel had been colored, giving the animation a sketchy, unfinished look. He was desperate for something to make movies cheaper, however, so he green-lit the process’s use on their next film.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians was completed on a budget of about $3.5 million, or just over half of what it cost to make Sleeping Beauty. It ended up being a smash hit with both audiences and critics (some of whom even called it the best Disney movie since Snow White) and was in the top ten highest grossing movies of the year. Though Disney still wasn’t a fan of the cheaper-looking art style, the xerography process was here to stay for the next two decades.
We’ve now reached the point in this project where I’m rewatching movies that I’m very familiar with from when I was growing up. As a kid, it wasn’t Pinocchio or Cinderella or Peter Pan that I watched over and over. It was this, and Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood. It’s a time period that’s often considered to be the “dark age” of Disney animation, but I’ll admit that it’s one that I still have a lot of fondness for.
Overall, I still think One Hundred and One Dalmatians holds up. But the timing of my viewing was unfortunate in that it immediately followed the sumptuous majesty of Sleeping Beauty’s design work. It’s a little hard to go straight from that to the vastly different style of this film. I still enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I wonder if it would have connected with me even more if I’d had a little more distance between it and the previous film.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is generally seen as the strongest of the xerography films, and I think I agree with that assessment. It starts out slowly, with Pongo window-shopping for a date as dogs and their owners walk by, followed by a meet-cute with both human and Dalmatian. The movie seriously picks up, fortunately, with the introduction of Cruella de Vil. I said last week that Maleficent was the best villain in the Disney canon, and I stand by that statement. But Cruella is definitely in the top five. She crashes into the film like a flamboyant, two-toned wrecking ball dressed in fox furs, dominating every scene that she’s in.
Once the puppies get stolen, the meat of the film becomes a rescue mission adventure. I’d actually completely forgotten about the Colonel and his tabby cat sergeant, who end up doing most of the real rescuing before Pongo and Perdita arrive on the scene. The scenes of Tibbs sneaking around the house play to me like a classic British WWII film in tone, with the puppies as POWs. This is made even stronger by the cat and mouse (dog and human?) game played as the two adult dogs try to get all of the puppies safely past the searching bad guys on the road back to London.
My main complaint with the film is the lack of characterization for really any of the puppies. The only one of Pongo and Perdita’s litter to have any real personality is Rolly, whose main trait is always being hungry. Other than him, it’s almost impossible to tell any of the puppies apart.
But that’s not really too strong of a complaint. There’s more than enough personality in all of the other characters who help them along the way. I also don’t really have that much of an issue with the xerography process, at least as it’s used here. Yes, the linework is definitely noticeable, and there’s a tendency for the colorists to paint outside the lines, especially on the backgrounds. Once the story gets out into the countryside, however, I feel that the sketchiness actually works in the film’s favor to depict the ramshackle barns and crumbling manor houses of the second half.
So, for my first true nostalgic movie in this series, I’d say the nostalgia holds up much better than I was expecting. It’s a fun adventure/escape movie, with a great memorable villain. There’s only one song in the movie, but it’s a catchy one (even if I question the ethics of writing what’s essentially a diss track about someone you barely know). Let’s see if we can keep the ball rolling as we head deeper into the era.
Animation: C+ (While I think that the style overall fits with the film, I can also acknowledge that it’s sub-par on a technical level, especially when compared to its immediate predecessor)
Main Characters: B (I like Pongo and Perdita, but they definitely don’t have that spark that pushes them into the upper tier of Disney protagonists)
Supporting Characters: B (A real mixed bag. The titular puppies are woefully underdeveloped, but the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs are fun)
Villains: A (Cruella De Vil is one of Disney’s best villains, and Horace and Jasper are above-average in the henchman department)
Music: C+ (Only one song, but it IS a bit of an ear worm)