101 Dalmatians is an interesting departure for Disney in a number of ways. Many of the previous Disney films before this were adapted from fairy tales. By contrast, 101 Dalmatians was based on a book that was written fairly recently (1956, to be exact), and was more modern in its setting. Taking place in then-present day England gave this movie a unique feel, both in its aesthetics and plot. I say “plot” because the late ’50s/early ’60s tech played a prominent role in the movie: the two bumbling henchmen, Jasper and Horace, are distracted by a TV show while the puppies sneak out (remember, by the early ’60s, TV had taken a huge chunk of theaters’ profits), and in the climax, villain Cruella de Vil relentlessly chases the puppies in a souped-up car. Even the music by George Bruns feels contemporary, with the opening sequence in particular very jazzy in tone.
Another aspect that separated 101 Dalmatians from its predecessors is in its production. The films before this had a time-consuming and tiring production process. First, an animator would create a drawing, then a dedicated inker would trace their drawing, and that traced drawing would be painted. Due to rising production costs (not helped due to the lengthy time spent on Sleeping Beauty), there was a concern in the late ’50s that Disney might have to shut down its animation department if it didn’t streamline the process. Enter Xerox, who created a process that allowed an animator’s drawing to be photocopied and then painted, skipping the inking process entirely. Considering this was instrumental in keeping Disney going, the Xerox process can only be seen as a positive, especially since two things would’ve been incredibly difficult using the old method: The unique spots on every dalmatian, and the large amount of dogs on-screen at any given time. That said, Xerox is not without its flaws: Since the inking process is skipped, an animator’s line work might not be cleaned up, resulting in a “sketchy” look at times. Thankfully, 101 Dalmatians is easily the best-looking Disney film which used the Xerox process. Roughness is at a minimum, and it’s appropriate the few times it’s still evident (as with Colonel, the scruffy sheepdog).
Finally, and perhaps most noticeable, this was the one of the few Disney animated films not to be a musical. There’s one main song in the film, “Cruella de Vil,” and it seems more organic to the film’s universe because it’s being sung and played by Roger Radcliffe, a songwriter/musician. The other characters don’t join in, the plot doesn’t stop in its tracks until the song finishes, and it makes sense that a songwriter would fine-tune his song out loud. It also gives us a great sequence where Roger loudly plays his song for the benefit of Cruella, who’s downstairs. There’s also one brief song at the end, but it’s literally one minute before “THE END” appears, so it feels like a fun way to end the movie.
Of course, it goes without saying that all of these unique aspects wouldn’t mean much if the film itself wasn’t fun to watch. Luckily, 101 Dalmatians is still an engaging romp. A big part of this is because the story is tightly told. Two single people fall in love (courtesy of Roger’s dalmatian dog, Pongo, setting them up in a way only a canine can), raise a litter of fifteen puppies, and have them stolen by Cruella de Vil, who schemes to turn the dalmatian puppies (plus 80-some more in her stash) into fur coats. It’s up to Pongo and his female companion, Perdita, to rescue their pups from de Vil and her for-hire goons, Jasper and Horace. It’s a simple story but that simplicity means it’s not bogged down in filler material. The few moments that don’t advance the plot, such as the puppies fixated on a serial TV show, are so adorable that they’re not unwelcome.
One of the reasons why such a scene is adorable is because of the always top-notch Disney character animation. They really nailed the way dogs behave throughout the film. When Pongo ecstatically wants to go outside early in the movie, I think any dog owner (or more generally, anyone who’s ever witnessed a dog) will smile in recognition. But the real star here is Cruella de Vil: a tall, lanky witch with mismatched hair and garish make-up whose figure is hidden by her massive, glamorous fur coat. She’s an interesting dichotomy mixing elegant and gauche. Of course, over the course of the movie she loses any shred of refinement and we see her for what she is: a maniacal, perpetually scowling Scrooge with a one-track-mind. Marc Davis was the main animator for Cruella, and he did a fantastic job. Cruella steals the show in any scene she’s in. The animation isn’t the only visual highlight, though, since the abstract backgrounds are a definite departure from the more realistic ones in earlier films. However, they are more stylistic and abstract, featuring more abrupt angles and some unique color combinations, but never do they look amateurish or too contrasting. Quite the contrary, the backgrounds are eye candy, and give us different landscapes than we’re used to seeing in Disney movies before 1961. The fantastic Blu-ray transfer lets us appreciate these visuals like never before, including seeing all the little details in the picture.
If there’s any flaw to the movie, it’s that with so many puppies and such a short running time, it’s impossible for any of them to emerge as unique characters. Yes, one of them is nicknamed “Lucky” and another is plump and always has food on the brain, but the vast majority of them are just personality-less props. But again, it’s not a huge problem because the focus is on the adventure of these puppies escaping their kidnappers. Plus, the two dalmatian parents, Pongo and Perdita, as well as Cruella de Vil, make up for it, as they’re more developed.
As with many Disney Blu-rays, there are plenty of bonuses across the Blu-ray and DVD discs. A brand-new featurette called “Lucky Dogs” (running 9:08) features retrospective interviews with some of the animators who worked on the film. “The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt” runs 1:46. Remember the TV serial that the dogs were watching in the film? We finally see how it ends, with a brand new conclusion, entirely animated by Phil Nibbelink. “Cruella de Vil: Drawn to be Bad” (7:13) naturally focuses on Cruella, and features interviews mostly from modern Disney staff. “Redefining the Line: The Making of 101 Dalmatians“(33:55) is the main documentary here, and covers pretty much all of the production processes in the film. There is a bit of repeat info here from the featurettes elsewhere on the set (such as the Xerox technique), but it’s still a worthwhile making-of doc.
Cameron Boyce, who is a Disney Channel teen star I’ve never heard of, gives us the “411 on 101” and spends 5:21 telling us why 101 Dalmatians is a cool film. It’s corny how much he overacts, but he brings up valid points regardless. “Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney” (12:48) evokes much the same tone as those Civil War letters documentaries, as it’s a reenactment of Disney and The Hundred and One Dalmatians author Dodie Smith exchanging pleasant letters concerning the making of the film. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what the public wouldn’t normally see, and it’s interesting how minor complaints from Dodie are in the letters, such as how briefly her name was on-screen during the opening credits. Overall though, she was very pleased with Disney’s treatment of her book. Finally, a full episode of Walt Disney Presents, entitled “The Best Doggone Dog in the World” (51:05) concerns, what else, dogs. A good ten minutes of the program is worth skipping, as it’s just film clips from 101 Dalmatians, but the rest is worth watching, especially the segment on sheep herding dogs. It has that nature documentary feel that this program was known for. Also included are: a music video by Selena Gomez (3:26), 101 Dalmatians trailers, and Disney trailers (including one for Aladdin on Blu-ray — finally!).
If you’re a dog lover, you’re sure to like 101 Dalmatians. But even if you’re not, there’s still plenty of appeal in this film, and its departure from what one usually thinks of when they hear “Disney” means it has a unique identity. The Blu-ray release boasts great picture quality and a healthy dose of extras. 101 Dalmatians hits the spot.