The Disney folks were always good with dogs. Just look at what they did with "Lady and the Tramp" in 1955. So it goes without saying that the studio would do a good job with "101 Dalmatians" in 1961. Indeed, it would be one of the last of the studio's classic animated features for quite some time to come, and the last one that Uncle Walt himself had a direct hand in preparing from start to finish. From 1961 until "The Little Mermaid" in 1989, there was something of a drought for the Disney animation department (with only "The Jungle Book" relieving things), but "101 Dalmatians" is almost as good as anything they had ever done in some time. Moreover, in this newly restored Platinum Edition (with an exception noted below), it looks better than ever, maybe even better than it looked when it was new.
The story is simple and straightforward and follows a route well traveled in Disney cartoons. A pair of animals, Dalmatians in this case, living in London fall in love, persuade their owners (their "pets") to fall in love, and get married. Or mated in the case of the animals, I guess. Before too long, the Dalmatians have puppies, fifteen to be exact. Now, enter the villain, one of Disney's best, Cruella De Vil. She's an old friend of the wife, and she has her eye on the pups. Why? Because she's so evil she wants to turn them into dog-fur coats! Naturally, the humans won't give them up, at which point Cruella hires a pair of thugs to kidnap the animals. The bulk of the story concerns the pups' parents trying to rescue them by calling up their fellow critters throughout the city and throughout the countryside, utilizing "the twilight bark."
The humans in the story are Roger and Anita Radcliffe, voiced by Ben Wright and Lisa Davis. He is a struggling songwriter and she is, well, a proper English housewife. Interestingly, although the film suggests that they are practically penniless, they appear to live in a fashionable section of London, and they can afford a full-time maid. It's nice to be poor in a Disney film. The adult dogs are Pongo and Perdita, voiced by Rod Taylor and Cate Bauer. Although the movie introduces these characters first, they all tend to fade into the background once the real star shows up, the fiendish Cruella De Vil, voiced by Betty Lou Gerson. The Disney artists, I've read, modeled Cruella after the showy Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead. Cruella is a truly horrible person, and one wonders how the reticent and reserved Perdita could ever be friends with her. But Cruella does steal the show, and without her I'm afraid we'd have something a lot more ordinary. So, she's quite the obnoxious delight.
Three separate Disney directors helmed the movie--two old hands, Clyde Geromini and Hamilton Luske, and one relative newcomer who would soon become an old hand, Wolfgang Reitherman. Screenwriter Bill Peet based his script on a popular novel by English writer Dodie Smith.
The first thing one notices about the picture is the rather stark animation style, more resembling pen-and-ink drawings than the lush watercolor pastels Disney used in prior cartoons. You see, the studio's most-recent prior full-length animated feature, "Sleeping Beauty," had not done well at the box office, and Disney was looking to save a little money on this production. Also, as the documentary explains, the studio wanted to try out a new, more modern style of art, as opposed to the old-fashioned Romantic style of previous Disney animations. It was so successful, and it saved Disney so much money, that the studio continued using the technique for many years to come. In any case, while it doesn't match the older style for sheer beauty and grace, it's still quite attractive.
Accompanying the new style is a jazzy soundtrack that fits the occasion both thematically and artistically. However, unlike most previous Disney animated features, this one has only one big musical number, the song "Cruella De Vil," and a very brief snippet of a song at the end, "A Dalmatian Plantation." Now, I know that not everyone appreciates songs in movies, but the fact is that Disney almost single-handedly maintained the movie musical long after the genre had fallen out of favor with the public. So, I wish "101 Dalmatians" had a few more songs involved.
I also wish the movie had a stronger central character. While "101 Dalmatians" has a great baddie, there is really no hero or heroine to root for. The humans drop out of the picture early on. The puppies are almost indistinguishable from one another. The various other critters come and go. Leaving only the Dalmatian mom and dad as possible main characters, particularly Pongo. But even they are absent from the story for long stretches at a time, and neither is ever in any serious personal danger. So, basically, what we're left with is not so much rooting for the hero or heroine as rooting against the villainess. This is a marked departure from the clear-cut heroes and heroines named in the very titles of Disney's best cartoons, like "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Cinderella," "Lady and the Tramp," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King." In those cases, we knew who was the object of our affections. Nevertheless, I quibble. Pongo and Perdita's attempts to rescue their kids is good enough.
The film moves along at a reasonably brisk pace, and given its relatively brief running time, seventy-nine minutes, it needs to. There is a bit more action in the movie's second half than one finds in many of Disney's animated features, and some of it is perhaps a little scarier than is usual with Disney. But it works out well and keeps the thing bouncing along with vigor.
The "101," by the way, derives from the number of Dalmatian pups De Vil has accumulated for her dog-fur scheme. And a cute bit has the two thugs watching their favorite television show, "What's My Crime?" (If you're too young to remember TV's "What's My Line?," the joke will go straight over your head.)
The latter part of "101 Dalmatians" reminded me somewhat of "Home Alone," which this movie may have helped inspire in some small measure. It's got that same kind of manic silliness, with the villains getting the worst of it. "101 Dalmatians" holds up well after all these years and continues to provide some rousing good fun.
Here's an oddity for Disney. "101 Dalmatians" came out in 1961, almost a full decade after the introduction of widescreen movies. Yet, while Disney released it to theaters in a 1.75:1 widescreen aspect ratio, here on disc, in an all-new digital restoration, the screen dimensions are 1.33:1. Not to fret, however. I have read that Disney originally shot the movie at 1.33:1, so this full-screen size is probably the ratio of the original camera negative, rather than Disney's having lopped off parts of the sides to give us a pan-and-scan rendering. I believe we are actually seeing more than audiences saw in theaters. In any event, it's still somewhat troublesome not being able to see the movie as the studio first exhibited it theatrically, as well as having to put up with the black bars on the sides of a widescreen television. Let's be optimistic, though, and consider how much more of the image we're seeing.
That said, the picture quality itself is quite good. The digitally restored and remastered video offers up a well-delineated image, maybe a trifle soft but not by much. Colors, which the Disney artists made intentionally subdued, are nevertheless deep and solid, with strong black levels. And the restoration eliminates any marks of age whatsoever. As I've said before, many times, it is probably easier to make animated subjects look good on disc than live action because animation doesn't have to deal with as much facial nuance, shadow detail, and so forth; but I cannot deny this transfer its proper due. It does practically everything one could hope for in a standard-definition product.
The sound comes to us in a completely redone Dolby Digital 5.1 home theater track as well as remastered in the film's original 1.0 monaural. I listened in DD 5.1 and found it sounded much like a lot of brand-new 5.1 soundtracks. Definition is good, dynamics are acceptable, overall response is smooth, stereo spread is reasonably wide, and various sounds appear to come from all five speakers. The subwoofer doesn't get much of a workout as a new blockbuster movie would put it through, and directional activity is not exactly pinpoint, but it's close enough to make the listening experience enjoyable.
Disc one of this two-disc Platinum Edition contains the feature film and several additional items. The most important are two sets of pop-up trivia notes, one called "101 Pop-up Trivia Facts for the Family" and the other "101 Pop-up Trivia Facts for the Fan." The track for the family gives us a good deal of information on the differences between the book and the movie, while the one for the fan delves a little deeper into behind-the-scenes material. Then there is an all-new music video, "Cruella De Vil," performed by Disney Channel star Selena Gomez. I found it pretty awful, loud and booming, but it will undoubtedly appeal to young people.
Disc one concludes with sixteen scene selections and an informational guide and chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at eight other Disney titles; an index of items on disc one and a preview of items on disc two; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains the rest of the bonuses, divided into three sections: "Games and Activities," "Music and More," and "Backstage Disney." Under "Games and Activities, we get two versions of "Disney's Virtual Dalmatians," one a DVD-ROM item and the other a set-top sampler. In either case you get to pick a puppy and train it to do various things. Next is "Puppy Profiler," wherein you answer questions about yourself to see what kind of pet would best suit you. And third, there is the "101 Dalmatians Fun With Language Game," geared for the very youngest members of the family and designed to help them learn new words and numbers.
In "Music and More" we get six deleted songs, about thirty-four minutes' worth, some of them abandoned by Disney, some of them alternate takes. It would have been interesting to watch "101 Dalmatians" with a few more songs included, since that was the one element I missed most.
Lastly, in "Backstage Disney," we get a thirty-four-minute documentary, "Redefining The Line: The Making of 101 Dalmatians." Divided into seven chapters, it presents the views of animators and filmmakers on the subject of the film. One of the comments that interested me is that Disney felt reluctant to give up the romantic style of animation he'd always used for what the speaker calls a more modern, mid-twentieth-century style. I couldn't help thinking that Disney was right. After that are a pair of featurettes, "Cruella De Vil: Drawn To Be Bad," seven minutes on the famous villainess; and "Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney," twelve minutes recreating the correspondence Disney conducted with author Dodie Smith before and during the film's production. Lastly, there are seven trailers, radio, and TV spots; seven separate art galleries for such things as "Visual Development, "Character Design," and "Production Photos"; and a colorfully embossed slipcover.
"101 Dalmatians" is a pleasing little confection, lacking only the usual array of songs that one has come to expect from an older Disney animation. It may not have as strong a main character as I'd like, either, but it does have a proper villain, or villainess in this case. I daresay Cruella De Vil will live on in memory long after any of the other humans or animals in the story have faded from memory.