Walt Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

If one were to research, even briefly, the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios one would find many successes as well as many failures, some of which by films considered classics today. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the big break-through for the studio and it set a precedent for feature-length animation. Following that picture though, war broke out in Europe and suddenly Disney’s audience was much harder to reach. Perhaps the charm of a feature-length animated picture had worn off following Snow White’s success as well, for the the next several films put out by Disney failed to meet expectations. Following a series of “package films” in the 1940’s, Disney returned to prominence, and profitability, with Cinderella in 1950. The follow-up, Alice in Wonderland, performed poorly at the box office, but the next several films fared much better all the way up to Sleeping Beauty, that is. Sleeping Beauty bombed, despite being the most expensive film the studio ever put out. It was such a disaster that many around Walt Disney were suggesting the company get out of animation, which was something Disney refused to entertain. He was able to acknowledge that their current process needed change. While films like Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp had been profitable, the profit margin on those films wasn’t what the studio needed to keep going. Success was also being found on television and with live-action films as well as the recently opened Disneyland theme park. Disney probably did not need animation, but it’s what the studio had been founded on.

The Pongos, most of them anyways.

The Pongos, most of them anyways.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a big film for Disney. While it can’t be said with certainty that had the film failed Disney would have abandoned animation, it’s probable to assume things would have turned out much differently. It’s a good thing then that the film not only was a hit with movie-goers and critics but also a hit when it came to the bottomline. Utilizing Xerox, the film ended up being much cheaper to produce than its predecessors leading to a very healthy profit margin. Instead of being one of the last animated features from the company, it ended up being the first of many achieved through the Xerox process.

It’s well-known that Walt Disney was fond of recalling that the success of his company all started with a mouse, but despite that Walt’s most favorite animal was clearly the dog. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the studio’s second feature to utilize canines as the lead protagonists, and much like Lady and the Tramp, the film serves as a window to the unseen world of dogs that we humans are oblivious to. Adapted from the book A Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, the film tells the tale of a dalmatian named Pongo, his “pet” human Roger, and how they came to be romantically linked with Perdita and Anita and proud parents of fifteen puppies. Everything would have been quite lovely had it not been for Cruella De Vil, Anita’s old classmate with an appetite for fur that can only be sated by dalmatian coats. The story is one of suspense, with some elements of mystery and plenty of humor added in. It works well with its modest 79 minute running time which foregoes the usual Disney musical style.

Several scenes in the film feature simple, almost one color backgrounds.

Several scenes in the film feature simple, almost one color backgrounds.

Stylistically the film is rather serious in tone, but from the point of view of dogs. It opens with Pongo deducing he and Roger’s lives as bachelors needs to end and he is outwardly searching for a mate for his pet (while also taking care to make sure his own needs are met). Unlike the dogs in Lady and the Tramp who seem to define their lives based on their loyalty to their masters, Pongo clearly views himself as the master in this relationship. He respects the needs of Roger, to a point, but when his puppies go missing later in the film he clearly implies that humans can’t solve their problems. Lady and the Tramp chose to emphasize that its story was from the point of view of dogs by keeping the camera at dog level, rarely straying far enough from the ground to even glimpse the visages of the humans Jim Dear and Darling. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is more straight-forward and positions its shots in a more traditional manner. The backgrounds are minimalist, a drastic change from the prior films from Disney, and it opts to use more flat colors with little to no shading. The film is also the most contemporary of any Disney film prior as its modern setting is quite different from the fantasy worlds many of the Disney films exist in. This even allows the story-tellers to utilize satire when depicting television and how the characters interact with it.

They don't come meaner than Cruella.

They don’t come meaner than Cruella.

Cruella De Vil, and her lackeys Horace and Jasper, is one of Disney’s finest villains. Her motivations are clear, rational considering her character, and easy to despise. Even those who do not consider themselves dog-lovers likely would not support someone in their quest to slaughter puppies for their fur. She is strikingly wicked looking, with sharp angles and manic eyes. Her face appears to be stretched to its limit to cover her skull, and her two-toned hair has become a hallmark of the character. She barges into the home of Anita and Roger, her fur coat slipping from her bony shoulders and the smoke-trail from her cigarette permeates the air and appears to be a character all its own. She drives an enormous vehicle like the biggest asshole you’ll ever encounter on the road and is prone to violent outbursts. Her voice actress, Betty Lou Gerson, is absolutely perfect with her performance and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job with the role. Horace and Jasper are her henchman. They handle the puppy-napping and were to also handle the slaughter but they’re typical, stupid, lazy, cohorts and are easily out-maneuvered by the film’s protagonists. They’re also mindless servants to television with their eyes constantly glued to the box and whatever rubbish is presented on it.

The pencil lines left behind by Xerox are easy to see in Roger's sleeves.

The pencil lines left behind by Xerox are easy to see in Roger’s sleeves.

The film is a success where profit and entertainment is concerned, but it must be said that this all came with a cost. The Xerox process, conceived of by Ub Iwerks, had its drawbacks when compared with the old process of drawing, inking, and painting each animation cell by hand. Naturally, the advantage was in cost as now the drawings by the animators were simply copied to cel by Xerox, eliminating the need for inking. Then they could go right to paint, and time was also saved by simply copying one image of a puppy several times over for the scenes involving the whole lot. The most obvious drawback to this process was the inability of Xerox to smooth out a pencil line during the copying, giving each character a rough, scratchy, look. Prior films were recognizable by the softness of the lines but also the rich, colored, outline each character possessed. Lady and the Tramp is my pick as the best looking of the Disney pictures. The characters pop even when placed on busy and highly-detailed backgrounds. Of course, the other drawback was that the entire inking staff was laid off, which meant hundreds of women lost their jobs in an era where work was hard to come by for women. Walt Disney Studios famously employed women almost exclusively for inking and painting, mostly due to prejudices of the time. They let men handle the drawing and decision-making when it came to creating the pictures. It obviously takes talent to ink and paint animation, but it was also thought-of as being a lesser position to artist. Still, the only other positions for women at the time were with the telephone company and service industries so it must have hurt when Disney shut-down inking. Walt Disney himself was not a fan of Xerox and disliked the look of the picture. Over the years, the process was improved upon but it would be decades before the pictures started to resemble the old films, which all came long after Disney’s passing. Art Director for Dalmatians, Ken Anderson, was said to be saddened by Walt’s opinion of the film’s look, though according to him Walt unofficially gave the art of the film his blessing shortly before he passed away.

Evil women drive evil cars.

Evil women drive evil cars.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a significant film for several reasons for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s the film that saved animation but also the film that changed it forever. Having recently viewed the Blu Ray release, I can say the film is actually more enjoyable than I remembered it from my childhood. The characters, despite mostly being dogs, are believable and their world is fun and fascinating. Visually, the film does suffer when compared with what came before it, but it also includes a wonderful car chase sequence that creatively utilized actual three-dimensional models to achieve its look. Even though the art is not as wonderful as it could have been, the film is animated superbly. The dogs walk like dogs, the humans display great personality with their mannerisms, and the action scenes are engrossing on their own. What little use the film makes of musical numbers is done quite well, with Cruella’s theme being one of the most memorable of all the Disney villain themes. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the last great picture released by Walt Disney during his lifetime and it’s one fans will continue to treasure for years to come.

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