"101 Dalmatians" Platinum Edition DVD Easily Wins Best in Show
On the surface, Disney’s 101 Dalmatians seems rather similar to Lady and the Tramp, which had been released 6 years earlier. Both films break from the Disney tradition of adapting fairy tales. Both films center on a pair of dogs who stray off for a variety of adventures before finally returning to the safety of their homes. Both of them bear the fingerprints of the famous “Nine Old Men” of the studio, at a point when they were all at the top of their game. However, the surface similarity quickly topples in the face of the differences between the two movies, which make 101 Dalmatians as distinctive as the dog breed that gives the film its title. Indeed, Lady and the Tramp is the last hurrah for one breed of Disney film, while 101 Dalmatians is the parent film for a new breed of Disney’s animated movies. Lady and the Tramp received the Platinum Edition treatment a few years ago, but now Disney has done the same for 101 Dalmatians. The resulting 2-disc DVD set is a wonderful presentation of a classic film and a sure-fire winner for any fan of animation.
Based on the children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, the movie centers on Pongo and Perdita, a pair of Dalmatians living in pre-Carnaby Street London with their “pets,” struggling songwriter Roger Radcliff and his lovely wife Anita. The relationship between Pongo and Perdita (and Roger and Anita, for that matter) is the first major difference between it and other Disney films. While other Disney animated films are “boy finds girl” stories that end with Happily Ever After, 101 Dalmatians starts from this point, as Pongo’s schemes to find a proper mate for his pet ultimately target Anita and the finely turned paw of her owner Perdita. The rest of the movie is about the bonds of matrimony and the concerns of parenthood; when Pongo and Perdita have a litter of 15 puppies, they draw the attention of Anita’s old friend, the flamboyant Cruella DeVil. The puppies soon vanish, thanks to the scheming of DeVil’s stoolies Horace and Jasper, and it’s up to Pongo and Perdita to brave the perils of the world to rescue their puppies, and quite a few more besides.
The differences between 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp begin right from the start, with the staid and orchestral opening credits of Lady and the Tramp replaced with a playful, jazzy opening sequence that sets the tone for 101 Dalmatians. While Lady and the Tramp is set in an idolized and not-too-distant past in a nameless American suburb, 101 Dalmatians was completely contemporary, planted squarely in London with a specific time and place in mind. Indeed, the attempts to be contemporary stretched beyond setting and into the score and artistic styles of the film as well. 101 Dalmatians was the first movie to break from the traditional ink-and-paint techniques of the past, replacing it with a technique based on new Xerox technology (for more information on this, check out Toon Zone News’ 101 Dalmatians Behind the Scenes feature article). While movies like Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty are marked by subtle, refined, and multi-colored linework, 101 Dalmatians has a scratchy line that is a direct translation of the animators’ pencil drawings. In some cases, the animators’ stray guidelines and structure lines even flash through briefly. To match the new look of the animation, the backgrounds were given a much more stylized look that used splashes and great areas of color to suggest depth, light, and shadow. The resulting animation is incredibly lively and spontaneous, making the earlier Disney films seem very mannered and processed. It’s the difference between the output of a chamber music quartet and an improvisational jazz quartet.
The jazz quartet is also an appropriate metaphor for the movie’s soundtrack. The score to the film is as playful as the opening credits, and serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the on-screen action. While Lady and the Tramp didn’t rely on musical numbers to the same extent that other Disney films did, it still featured several memorable show-stopping numbers indelibly etched into cinema history. In contrast, 101 Dalmatians has nearly no musical numbers at all — ironic, considering Roger’s occupation as a songwriter. Indeed, the major musical number of the movie is Cruella DeVil’s theme song, which is staged as Roger finally finding a subject for a melody he just wrote and then using it to tease his wife playfully. There is also a brief number that closes out the film, but on the whole, 101 Dalmatians eschews the stereotypical animated family film musical numbers in a way that wouldn’t become commonplace until the rise of Pixar.
As mentioned, 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney animated feature that centered on the adventures of a couple rather than the search of two individuals for each other. This makes the film remarkably sophisticated and adult, and the struggles of Roger and Anita to get established in their new life greatly abets this storytelling sophistication. Indeed, Roger and Anita are as charming as their dogs, and they received an equal amount of attention from Disney’s master character animators. The interactions between the two are beautifully familiar, as Roger invades Anita’s space in a way permissible only to couples. Similarly, when Roger’s antics stop being endearing and start becoming annoying, Anita briefly flashes That Look at him in a moment that will be instantly recognized to any man who’s been involved with a woman for any length of time. Indeed, there isn’t another couple like Pongo and Perdita (or even Roger and Anita) in a Disney animated film until we hit Bob and Helen Parr in The Incredibles, which should show perfectly how ahead of its time 101 Dalmatians was.
Another major difference between the two movies is the powerful antagonist that drives the action of 101 Dalmatians. There is no Cruella DeVil analog in Lady and the Tramp, nor are there comparable characters to Cruella’s buffonish henchmen Horace and Jasper. Beautifully brought to life by Marc Davis, Cruella is a lavish, extravagant, and flamboyant screen presence who easily dominates any scene she’s in. Admittedly, her Sinister Plan for the puppies is pretty foolish, if you think about it, and the end of the movie does not prevent her from another shot at her crazy scheme, but she is still one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains, thanks to Davis’ animation and a bravura performance by Betty Lou Gerson.
Beautiful character animation is one thing that Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians share in common, however. Pongo’s introduction runs him through a gamut of boredom, curiosity, puzzlement, and excitement that will ring true to anybody who’s ever known a dog, just as the anthropomorphic Tramp’s movement and body language are firmly rooted in canine behavior. The character animation also lent depth to an endearing supporting cast, including the loutish Horace and Jasper, the housekeeper Nanny, a handful of the 15 dalmatian puppies, and the heroic trio of the noble horse Captain, the slightly befuddled sheepdog Colonel, and the put-upon cat Sgt. Tibs. Indeed, this trio and the long chain of canines that assist Pongo and Perdita in their rescue mission makes the middle part of the movie evoke nothing as much as a World War II escape movie.
Most of Disney’s Platinum Edition DVDs are a fine repackaging of their classic films, and 101 Dalmatians is no exception. The movie itself has been cleaned up and digitally restored, with beautiful results that bring out the animation and the background coloring in beautiful detail. The movie is presented in full-frame, with a digitally enhanced home theater soundtrack in addition to the original stereo soundtrack and soundtracks in French and Spanish. In place of a commentary track, we get two “pop-up” trivia tracks — one geared for children and one aimed at adults. Both are cute and informative, although the adult track has a nasty tendency to wait a bit too long between pop-ups, meaning you can sometimes forget the question that the current pop-up is answering. The second disc of supplements is anchored by a fine documentary, “Redefining the Line,” which neatly places the film in context. It includes interview clips with a number of the people who made the movie, in current footage for artists like color stylist Marc Peregoy, animators Ollie Johnston and Floyd Norman, and actress Lisa Davis; and in archival footage for those no longer with us, such as art director Ken Anderson and animator Marc Davis. Enlightening commentary is also provided by the likes of Disney and animation historians like Jerry Beck, Paula Sigman, and Brian Sibley; as well as contemporary animators like Andreas Deja, Ron Clements, Brad Bird, and Pete Docter. It is one of the finest “making of” documentaries that has ever appeared on a Disney DVD. A second featurette, “Drawn to be Bad” focuses solely on Cruella DeVil and the work that Marc Davis did to bring her to life. The third featurette, “Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney,” dramatically re-creates the correspondence between Walt Disney and Dodie Smith, which doesn’t attempt to whitewash some of Smith’s dissatisfactions with the adaptation.
A slew of short clips highlight the half-dozen deleted songs from the movie, each of which notes where the song would have appeared in the movie and uses pre-production artwork to act as a quasi-animatic for each deleted song. There are also an incredible number of trailers and TV spots for the movie, and even a few radio advertising spots. Finally, a series of art galleries encompasses everything from storyboard art, pre-production color studies, character designs, live-action reference, and animation pencil drawings. The final extras are the usual teeny-bopper music video and DVD kiddie games, all of which are as essential as the ones on earlier special editions (which is to say not at all). The first DVD is also equipped with Disney’s “FastPlay” system, and someone should really point out that a true “Fast Play” system would skip the lengthy tutorial on how to use FastPlay and just jump straight to the DVD menu. Regardless, the quibbles with the special features on this disc are nothing different from those of other Platinum Editions, and they are all a perfectly reasonable price to pay for such a delightful movie that is presented so beautifully.
I had much stronger memories of Lady and the Tramp than I did of 101 Dalmatians before watching this Platinum Edition DVD. The plot and highlights of Lady and the Tramp stuck with me, while I could remember nothing more than incredibly broad highlights of 101 Dalmatians. Watching the movie now, I was probably completely unable to fully appreciate 101 Dalmatians sophisticated visual and storytelling sensibility until adulthood. It was a clear and visible break from the past for the Disney animation studio, and my adult eyes can now see it for the truly groundbreaking work that it is. 101 Dalmatians has easily made the transition from “contemporary” to “classic” — a claim which eludes many other films from the era — and the two-disc Platinum DVD gives this classic the treatment it deserves.
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