One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is one of the lesser known (lesser lauded anyway) Disney Classics, most probably a consequence of the fact that any official merchandise sold never included Disney Princesses.

This film’s popularity enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in 1996 with the release of the Jeff Daniels and Glenn Close helmed live-action remake, 101 Dalmatians. I believe this was the second live-action Disney remake after 1994’s Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and a masterfully translated one, at that.

101 Dalmatians Reaction GIF

Story and Characters

The film is narrated by Pongo (Rod Taylor), a lonely Dalmatian who, as far as he’s concerned, is the master of his human pet, Roger Radcliffe (Ben Wright), a freelance musician. They are two bachelors living what Roger considers to be a pleasant bachelor life. Apart from writing music, Roger spends his days hoarding stuff and chain pipe smoking, traits not commonly found in a Disney character.

Chain Smoking Roger

Pongo finds the whole bachelor gig dull and the fact that his good-looking pet hasn’t found a suitable partner yet, worrisome. He spends his days sitting at his window sifting through potential human and canine candidates for the both of them.

On this particular afternoon Pongo spots two beautiful specimens in the forms of the human Anita (Lisa Davis) and her dog Perdita (Cate Bauer). Pongo notices them walking towards the nearby park and without wasting any time, tricks Roger into taking the both of them there.

Some waterlogged slapstick later, it was love at first sight.

It begs to be noted here that, especially in the film’s first half, most of the Dalmatians characters are quite blandly written and caricatures of themselves; Anita; soft and pushover, Roger: Sarcastic and Funny. Pongo: Dependable and Mature. And so on.

They waste no time getting married and spend what seem to be an idealistic first six-months of child free marriage (while Pongo and Perdita are expecting puppies), until their world is turned upside down  when the ‘Devil-Woman’, Cruella De-Ville pays them a visit. Now a staple Disney Villain, Deville is introduced by Roger as a ‘devoted old schoolmate’. This infers that she’s dropped in on the Radcliffes before, and also that both she and Anita are of the same age, something which is never translated well to screen.

Enter Cruella

Anita is clean, young and sweet, almost like the animated equivalent of a young Julie Andrews. Cruella seems to have absolutely nothing in common with her, least of all, her age. Cruella is drawn to look positively ancient. She wraps, or better still, hides her frail, sickly looking body in huge furs. Her large hands, jutting cheekbones and lack of nose bridge bring to mind unfortunate and unflattering paparazzi images of a sick Michael Jackson. The reason why Anita and Roger would put up with her or even tolerate her presence in their lives isn’t explained. I believe such characters could have set the stage for an immensely rich study of character relations, had they not been constrained to co-exist in a 1961 Disney animation.

Another thing about Cruella is she’s thoroughly vulgar. She storms into their home unannounced and at will, waving her cigarette (stuck firmly on holder) in everybody’s faces, spouting green smoke as if she was Maleficent’s dragon from Sleeping Beauty (1959). She not only smokes in the house but aggressively puts her cigarette out in an iced bun Anita kindly offers her. To add insult to injury, she announces their meeting adjourned by sprinkling  cigarette ash into a teacup as if it were an ashtray. I don’t think I’d ever come across any other Disney animated characters who wear vulgarity on their sleeve in such a barefaced manner.

During Cruella’s visit, its made clear that she’s interested in the puppies for one reason – their hides. She immediately demands to see the puppies she calls ‘little brutes’. In the same green puff of breath, she declares she lives for furs and worships furs.

Cruella makes no secret of her real intention regarding the puppies, just as Roger makes no secret of his dislike for the evil woman, humoristically emphasising his point by sitting her visit out and staying in his upstairs music room instead, banging out hate-anthems on his piano and brass instruments. However, Anita plays along. Pongo and Perdita overhear all this and as a result, Perdita states that she prefers the puppies not to be born at all than to be sold to Cruella. A perfectly rational point of view. 

‘I live for fur, I worship fur!’

Regardless, fifteen puppies arrive, one of them stillborn. This sets the scene for one of the most emotionally charged parts of the film, when Roger lovingly and patiently, rubs life back into the puppies cold and lifeless body. A scene which in essence, perfectly demonstrates  the film’s inherently kind spirit.

‘Just one of life’s things…and yet…I wonder’

Back to the story; Cruella returns on the puppies’ due date and is at first disgusted by the ‘white mongrel rats’ that she sees. Once (for some reason) Anita kindly explains that the puppies will eventually get their spots, she tries to buy them all there and then. Anita remains totally ineffective in persuading her otherwise. It is Roger who (literally) stands up to her and tells her that he’s not going to sell any of the puppies, resulting in Cruella cursing the whole family and door-smashing her way out of the residence.

Jasper and Horace

She retaliates to their refusal by sending in the Baduns (an early blueprint for Home Alone’s The Wet Bandits) to do the dirty work for her. Horace (Frederick Warlock) and Jasper (J.Pat O’Malley), are two cigarette smoking and wine gulping, utterly idiotic career petty thieves who are just one job away from getting themselves locked up with the key thrown away. They proceed to bumble their way through the puppy-napping, keeping the nanny secured inside the upper room while they do it. Once she finds out that they’ve taken the puppies, her despairing reaction tugs at the heartstrings of anyone capable of feeling a measure of compassion.

Noting their pets’ ineptitude at finding their puppies, Pongo and Perdita eventually take the matter into their own hands, resorting to spreading the news through a canine gossip chain known as the Twilight Bark. This triggers a chain reaction of four legged creatures collaborating with each other to solve the crime.    

Thus starts the second half of a film, characterised by a stark shift in tone. This story turns  darker and becomes a one of survival, of parenting, of threading out of one’s comfort zone and of doing the right thing.

Hell Hall

The story culminates with the fifteen Pongo puppies’ rescue from Cruella’s clutches in the fittingly named Hell Hall, along with eighty four other Dalmatians who were legally bought but faced the same cruel fate. Certain scenes and motifs here characterise this film as one of the darker, more mature Disney outings than most of the rest.

A number of characters go out of their way to help Pongo, Perdita and their puppies without having any ulterior motives other than to actually help. The film’s centre piece is a dog exodus which serves to bring out the best in all the characters involved, characters who in any other  film would have been human, but who here take the shapes of dogs, a cat, a horse and a number of barnyard cows.

Sgt Tibbs and the Colonel

Voice Acting

The voice acting is phenomenal. Betty Lou Gerson is fantastic as Cruella DeVille, sadistic to an almost Satanic level. Her vocal range, strength and diction is superb. The esteemed Rod Taylor we know from The Time Machine (1960) and The Birds (1963) also gives quite a spirited performance as the reliable and honourable Pongo. J.Pat O’Malley, a true Disney treasure noted for voicing many well-loved characters for the company in the 1950s and 1960s, voices two characters with distinct personalities; the Colonel, an old, well-meaning but perpetually hazy Old English Sheepdog, as well as Jasper, the cruel and inept leader of the Baduns.

‘I’m tired and I’m hungry…’

Having said that, there was one particular voice talent that, combined with the animation, score and atmosphere, elevated the film through one particularly heart-wrenching scene. Twelve year old Mimi Gibson voiced Lucky, the stillborn puppy lovingly revived by Roger. Her flawless, humble delivery as Lucky opening up to his father during their trek home in a blizzard remains one of the most touching moments in cinema.

‘…and my tail’s froze, and my nose is froze and my ears are froze and my toes are froze…’

Technically

A curious technical aspect I noticed for the first time on this (HD) viewing, was the use of real snow footage or at least a snow-like texture pasted onto animated snow in a scene where Cruella’s wheels are stuck in the snow. The animators really went out of their way to attempt something that must have been innovative for those few frames.

The exhilarating musical score is lushly orchestrated as Disney scores of old tended to be. While music plays an important part in this film, Dalmatians isn’t a musical, the second Disney Animated Feature not to be so after Bambi (1942).

This second half of the film is also notable for its use of character cameos. During the Twilight Bark sequence, at least four main characters from Lady and The Tramp (1955) are distinctly recognisable. Another Lady and the Tramp cameo I noted was purely aural. A sound effect of a puppy squealing during the escape from the Baduns at Hell Hall, was used in LATT when Lady as a puppy, whimpers and squeals to convince her masters to let her spend the night in their bedroom.  

The Triplets of Belleville

Generally speaking, One Hundred and One Dalmatians feels different to most of the older Disney animated Classics. The look is quite stylised and feels like an application of different techniques, ranging from water colour to graphic pens. Production commenced hot on the heels of Sleeping Beauty (1959), a film which also noted for its stylised and angular animation, but which however feels odder and (naturally) more dated than Dalmatians. I believe the recipe worked better in Dalmatians. The animation style more similar to that used in Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010), than, say Dumbo (1941) or Lady and the Tramp (1955).

It provides the film its decidedly European look that works so well, given its London setting. However, some criticism of the drawing style is justly deserved; the harsh outlines and block-drawn backgrounds, tend to look cheaper when compared to the fuller, softer animation style of previous, and also later, Disney cartoons. Viewing it through nostalgic 2020 eyes however, and comparing it with the digital drawings today’s generations have grown up with, one cannot help falling in love with the quaint imagery.

A perfectly realised pea-soup London

Necessity is the mother of invention; the film’s requirements ‘forced’ the producers to employ Xerox photocopy technology for the first time. This was the key element in permitting the animation of hundreds of spotted dogs well under budget and within deadline, a trait that would continue to be used in other productions. The same scratchy, hard outlines remained visible in all the subsequent Disney animations until The Rescuers (1977) came along, bringing with it a softer and cleaner animation style. Disney would then continue producing warm, fuzzy, colourful works until its first universally damned misstep with The Black Cauldron in 1985, the catalyst which served to trigger what I consider to be the most beautiful phase in the Disney saga, the Disney Renaissance.

from the film’s intro

The refreshing animation style is noticeable from the opening sequence brilliantly scored by Disney stalwart George Bruns, Disney’s own Morricone, of The Love Bug (1968), The Aristocats (1970) and The Sword in the Stone (1963) fame, amongst others.

George Bruns - D23
George Bruns

Final Thoughts

One Hundred and One Dalmatians holds up effortlessly to this day. It lauds the qualities of those able to come together and give the best they can to help ease the pain of others. The film’s message is indubitably clear; our pets are no less than human family members and should be treated as such. It is utterly wholesome and doubles as a protest piece in favour of animal rights. It would be interesting to know how many people were turned off from wearing fur as a result of this movie.

Here’s hoping this film gains a new appreciation once Cruella hits theatres in 2021.

Have you watched One Hundred and One Dalmatians? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!

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