101 DALMATIANS (1961) – Blu-ray review

Kids who love “Frozen” owe a big thank-you to the Disney staffers who made “101 Dalmatians.” Animation had grown to be such an expensive proposition that it took 600 people to bring the previous film, “Sleeping Beauty,” to the big screen in 1959. And so the folks who worked on “101 Dalmatians” were told that they had to find a way to make an animated picture that didn’t cost so much, or Walt Disney would reluctantly pull the plug on all future animated projects. The animation staff had already been trimmed to 300, but that still wasn’t enough. What saved animation for Disney was the discovery that you could eliminate the step of “inking” the drawings by Xeroxing them directly onto acetate sheets and save one tedious and expensive step in the animation process.

That’s the backstory, but what everyone knew in 1961 was that Disney had come up with another winning animated feature that included one of the most memorable Disney villains to date:  Cruella De Vil, a devil of a woman who even had her own catchy theme song. She couldn’t change herself into a dragon, like Maleficent, but her driving was frightful and her obsession—to turn cute little Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat—was as evil and monstrous as any scheme that young viewers could comprehend. Even her henchmen were memorable because they combined comic relief and true menace.

“101 Dalmatians” turned out to be the ninth highest grossing film of 1961, and while it didn’t do as well as two Disney live-action features (“The Absent-Minded Professor” and “The Parent Trap”), it kept Disney animation alive for future projects and future generations of viewers.

The late Roger Ebert called it “an uneven film, with moments of inspiration in a fairly conventional tale of kidnapping and rescue,” and it’s hard to dispute that. But I do take exception with Ebert’s assessment that it’s only “passable fun.” I bet to differ. “101 Dalmatians” is more than that, especially for dog lovers and families with pets—and according to the Humane Society, that’s 47 percent of all American households. The puppies are cute as the Dickens and drawn, in typical Disney fashion, from live models so that they’re incredibly realistic in their movement.

Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) narrates the story from the very beginning, when he introduces us to his songwriting “pet” Roger, whom he believes would benefit from having a mate. When he sees the perfect one (who just happens to be “owned” by a female Dalmatian named Perdita), Pongo arranges a “meet cute” in full-blown romantic comedy style.

Yes, the minute those puppies are born “101 Dalmatians turns into a fairly standard kidnapping and rescue story. But the Disney animators do a fine job of working within this dramatic sub-genre, all while giving us the kind of detail and characters that we’ve come to expect from Walt Disney Studios.

Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman (three of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men”) keep things moving and manage to sustain a tension throughout the film, from the moment a litter of puppies is born and they end up being held captive with 84 other “dognapped” pups. J. Pat O’Malley lends his distinctive voice to the Colonel, a dog who, with his feline pal Sgt. Tibs, leads the charge to rescue ALL of the dogs.

“101 Dalmatians” may not be top tier Disney, but it’s high on the second tier. On the Movie Met scale it would probably merit a 7.5, and rounded up that makes it an 8 out of 10. And it looks absolutely terrific on Blu-ray—a must upgrade for fans.

Viewers have two choices:  to watch the film in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with black bars on each side, or to select DisneyView and watch with borders that fill out the rest of the 16×9 surface. I preferred the former, actually—less distraction and closer, really, to the theater experience, especially if you turn out the lights.

The level of detail in this HD release is amazing, and the colors are wonderfully hued. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.

The audio is a rich, nicely textured English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that you’d have to call “immersive,” especially during heightened moments of action and peril. I wouldn’t say the bass is a presence except in such instances, but the soundtrack has an overall sense of fullness that only comes with a 7.1 option. Additional audio options are a French DTS-HDHR 5.2, a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and the original English theatrical mix. Subtitles are in English SDH, French and Spanish.

Included is a brand-new animated short featuring “The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt,” the B&W Western that the dogs watch. Also included is Disney’s attempt to bridge the gap between adult fans and a new generation of Disney lovers, with Disney Channel’s Cameron Boyce hosting a feature that emphasizes fun facts about the film—one of which (that it was the highest grossing film of 1961) would appear to be incorrect. It plays like a TV teaser aimed at convincing young viewers to give this a chance, and so seems useless as a bonus feature on a disc that presumably a family has already purchased.

My family enjoyed much more a 1961 black-and-white feature from the old “Disneyland” TV series in which Walt Disney holds live dogs and introduces true-life segments and, using still shots on large cards that he flashes, creates a virtual storybook version of the film that’s supplemented by clips from the film. Call it one gigantic teaser to go see the film, though it’s surprisingly complete and full of spoilers. But the segment on Navajo sheep dogs was so informative and felt like a historical document unearthed that it was fun to watch.

Another new feature is “Lucky Dogs,” a look at Disney’s animation studios and animators behind the scenes back when the film was made, and with new interviews with those still living intercut into the narrative. The theme is that they’re all “lucky dogs” to have worked for Disney, but it’s fascinating to see so much footage and so many photos of work “behind the curtain.”

Included too are features ported over from the DVD version.

Bottom line:
“101 Dalmatians” was one of the last films that Walt Disney personally had a hand in making and it was directed by three of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men.” That doesn’t automatically guarantee success, but this film still plays well today—even though it’s lacking the music and comedy of later Disney entries.