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What kind of Disney movie reads Playboy?
Only two years separated the releases of Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians but they are, in every sense, eras apart. 101 Dalmatians feels so different, looks so different and sounds so different from its immediate predecessor that it almost feels like the work of a different studio. This is the first of what I call the Scratchy Movies, because of the harder, scratchier outlines of the characters compared to previous Disney eras. Take a look:
You see how the lines are so much starker and rougher in the last one? Why is that?
Well, during the production of Sleeping Beauty Walt basically realised that this would be the last time he could make a movie like that. He had to either find a way to bring down the costs of animating his movies or shut down the animation wing altogether and focus on live action movies and theme parks. Thankfully, Disney realised that animation is the very heart and soul of the Disney brand and that shutting down the animation department would be a declaration of war on the childhood of every living human being.
It was then that legendary animator Ubi Iwerks came up with a solution: Xerox. Iwerks was probably Walt’s oldest friend, an animator he knew from all the way back in his days in Kansas City. Iwerks co-created Mickey Mouse with Disney, by which I mean Disney asked him to create a character, Iwerks then created Mickey Mouse, and so for some reason they are considered the co-creators of Mickey Mouse.
Well, regardless of who is the true sire of the Black Mouse, by the early nineteen sixties Iwerks was in charge of special processes, essentially the R&D department of the animation wing. Using essentially the same technology as your office photocopier, Iwerks developed a way to copy the animators’ drawings directly onto the cels, resulting in a much cheaper and quicker animation process. The downside of this, as you can see, is that you essentially have to cut out the entire inking process whereby those rough scratchy lines are softened. The animators, incidentally, loved this technique because it allowed their work to be seen more clearly onscreen. The inkers, not surprisingly, did not love it because they were now out of a job. To put it bluntly, the Scratchy movies are not pretty. There is no way you could honestly claim that they are anything near as beautiful as the movies that came before them. But that does not mean that they are without value, in fact at least one of their number has a decent claim to being one of the most beloved Disney movies ever made. The Scratchy movies make up for their visual limitations with charm, wit and some absolutely killer tunes. This is the era of the really great Disney songs, “Bear-Necessities”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Cruella De Vil” I could on and on. This era is like the younger, stoner brother of the earlier ones. Sure, he may be a bit of a mess, a lot less polished, and he certainly won’t amount to as much. But you can’t deny he has a certain laid-back charm, he’s cool, he’s funny as hell, he plays that guitar like a goddamn boss and he’s just more fun to hang around with.
So, let’s take a look at 101 Dalmatians.
We begin with the most “sixties” opening credits I have ever seen. Seriously, the only way these credits could be more sixties would be if the Pink Panther appeared to the strains of Henry Mancini and then James Bond walked on and shot him.
The credits are by far the most technically ambitious of any Disney movie we’ve seen so far and the animators go to great lengths to show off the new Xerography process which allowed them to reuse the same piece of animation over and over and over again to create an entire Inbred of Dalmatians (that is the collective noun for Dalmatians, I think you’ll find). Xerography was absolutely essential to this movie, as without it there would have been simply no way to animate all those dozens of puppies with their thousands of spots.
Anyway the movie begins with our dalmatian hero, Pongo, narrating the story of how he met his future mate Perdita.
Pongo lives in London with his owner (or “pet” as he refers to him) Roger, a professional songwriter. Deciding that the bachelor life is getting them both down he arranges for Roger to bring him to the park so that Pongo can meet Perdie and Roger can meet Perdie’s owner Anita. He does this in classic early nineteen sixties romantic comedy fashion.
So yes, they get married, the two humans and two dogs move in together and all, as they say, is gas and gaiters. Perdita is soon expecting a litter of puppies, and Roger is working on a new song. He’s got the melody down but can’t seem to nail the lyrics. Their peace and quiet is shattered with the arrival of Cruella De Vil, Anita’s old school friend, who storms into the house trailing cigarette smoke, a six foot tall, rake-thin diva draped in furs and spewing bile at every living thing in a six mile radius.
Cruella De Vil will usually top any list of the greatest Disney villains of all time, and not without good reason. Voice actress Betty Lou Gerson gives a wonderfully larger than life, Tallulah-Bankhead-gone-nuts performance, and the animators giver her a very distinctive presence. And of course, she gets one of the very best Disney villain songs; Cruella De Vil, a hilarious, dark, jazzy masterwork that has been covered by everyone from Dr. John to The Replacements to…
Regardless, it’s still a great song.
Cruella is looking for the puppies but once she hears that they won’t be born for another three weeks she promptly skidaddles, making Anita promise that she’ll let her know the moment the puppies arrive. Roger swans in, singing Cruella De Vil. Roger and Anita are often overlooked, but they bring a great deal to this movie. They’re so much more interesting than Jim Dear and Darling, they have very appealing character design and they actually behave like a real, recognisable married couple.
Perdita is terrified that Cruella will take the puppies, but Pongo swears to her that he won’t let that happen. Weeks pass, and on a dark and stormy night Roger and Pongo wait anxiously in the kitchen as Perdie gives birth to the puppies.
They’re both so tightly wound up that when Nana (their home help) bursts into the kitchen with an excited “The puppies are here!” Pongo actually leaps into Roger’s arms.
Nana excitedly calls out the number of puppies as each one is born, and as the number gets higher and higher Pongo’s reaction goes from happiness to joy to shock to just…well…
Nana calls out “Fifteen!” excitedly before slowing re-entering the kitchen holding a small bundle and sadly declaring “Fourteen.”
Well…that took a unexpected turn into tragedy. One of the puppies is stillborn. Roger consoles Pongo, saying “Oh Pongo, boy. I’m afraid it’s just one of those things. And yet…and yet I wonder.”
Actually, not a million miles from that. Roger massages the puppy’s body to bring it back to life. It should be a very tense scene, but it’s kind of spoilt by the fact that there’s thunder and lightening flashing outside the house, meaning that when the puppy finally starts to move I was expecting Roger to cackle “It’s alive! ALIVE! THEY CALLED ME MAD!!!” Incidentally, this is actually based on a real event. Dodie Smith, the author of the original novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians had a Dalmatian who gave birth to a litter of fifteen puppies, the thirteenth of whom was stillborn but who was resuscitated by Smith’s husband.
Anyway, Cruella storms in eager to buy the entire litter but Roger tells her to screw off. Cruella takes this with good grace and calmly leaves…no, no, no, I’m kidding. She curses them and their descendants yea, even down to the seventh generation and storms out swearing vengeance.
Cut to a few weeks later and the Dalmatians are sitting around the TV watching Thunderbolt, a show about a superheroic dog who battles evil.
The puppies are cute but…they’re all the same character. They really are. One is fat, and one has a patch over one eye, and one is addicted to TV but they’re all just tics. The scenes where the puppies are talking with each other sound like someone having a conversation with himself. And considering how indistinguishable the puppies are from each other visually they become extremely non-descript.
Pongo and Perdie put the puppies to bed and go for a walk with Roger and Anita. They pass Horace and Jasper, two of Cruella’s henchmen. Horace is fat and dumb, and Jasper is tall and not quite as dumb and wait just a damn minute here! Okay, I’m going to have to do all these in one go. Deep breath…
Horace and Jasper have been sent by Cruella to steal the puppies but Horace is worried that they’ll get caught. Jasper tells him that it’s not his job to think because “I’ve got the knob for this job.”
What the FUCK are you planning on doing with those puppies Jasper?!
Anyway, despite being duller than a pair of damp rusty butter knives in a burlap sack, Horace and Jasper manage to break into the house and make off with the fifteen puppies. Roger and Anita call the police, but to no avail and Pongo and Perdie decide that if they’re going to get their puppies back they’ll have to do it themselves. Of course, if they were living in Ireland the puppies would be back by now. We have a very simple and effective way of dealing with kidnappers.
On their evening walk, Pongo and Perdie send out an APB to every dog in London. I mostly love this scene because Roger and Anita are both wearing trenchcoats and fedoras and it looks like they’ve walked out of a film noir or something.
Anyway, there now follows a looooong scene where the Dalmatians’ message is passed from dog to dog, starting with a great dane named Danny who relates it to…holy shit. Jock?!
Yes, Jock from Lady and the Tramp makes a cameo in this movie. But…that doesn’t make any sense. Lady and the Tramp took place in turn of the century America and this movie is set in London in the nineteen fifties. How could Jock possibly be still alive unless…wait a minute. Scottish. Seemingly Immortal. Oh my God!
Actually, pretty much all the main canine characters from Lady and the Tramp make an appearance in this sequence, Lady, Tramp, Peg and Bull are all seen. The message finally leaves the city and makes it’s way into the countryside. Now, this scene sums up my biggest complaint against this movie. It is padded to fuck. Let me break down what happens here. Pongo sends a message which gets picked up by Danny the great dane. Danny has some dialogue with his little yorkie buddy explaining that the message is about fifteen Dalmatian puppies being stolen. He then passes it on to Jock, who passes it on to around five other dogs. The message reaches a bloodhound called Towser in the countryside and he has a conversation with his friend Lucy the goose, pretty much repeating what we already know. Towser then passes the message along until it’s heard by a horse named the Captain who tells a cat named Sergeant Tibs to wake a sheepdog named the Colonel. The Colonel then goes and asks Towser to relay the message…
THIS IS NOT EFFICIENT STORY TELLING! There are at least four speaking parts here that could easily have been cut and the movie would be so much tighter.
Anyway, the Colonel asks Towser to relay the message and…holy shit.
Otto Von Bismarck?! You’re in this one too?!
Wait! Come back!
I’m so alone.
Anyway, we’re not done yet. The Colonel barks to Towser, who barks back. Then the Colonel barks back to get THE REST OF THE MESSAGE.
And THEN! TOWSER BARKS THE MESSAGE TO THE COLONEL. AND THE COLONEL SAYS THE MESSAGE IS “FIFTEEN PUDDLES STOLEN.”
So that’s FIVE AND A HALF MINUTES we’ve spent setting up that one, incredibly lame joke.
Tibs and the Captain finally get it through the Colonel skull that the message pertains to puppies and Tibs remembers that he heard puppies barking in Hell Hall, the De Vil’s ancestral home. The Colonel then barks back to Towser who tells Lucy…
It’s not my fault! Anyway. The Colonel sends Tibs in to Hell Hall to scout the area. Tibs discovers that not only are the fifteen stolen puppies being held in Hell Hall by Horace and Jasper, but eighty four other Dalmatian puppies that Cruella has bought are there too. Now, this brings me to the movie’s second major flaw. Lack of focus.
Tibs is pretty much the hero of the movie for most of the third act which is largely taken up with his attempts to smuggle the ninety nine puppies out of Hell Hall. Now, Tibs is a very likeable character, excellently voiced by David Frankham as a true-blue, for-Queen-and-Country English military officer, but the fact remains that this character just appears over halfway through the movie, becomes the hero for around the length of one act and then disappears never to be seen again. Now, I’m not saying that sort of thing CAN’T work in a movie…
Well, anyway. Tibs manages to get the puppies out of the living room with the help of some recycled animation from Cinderella.
Tibs and the puppies lead Horace and Jasper on a merry chase through Hell Hall but finally they’re cornered. Jasper closes in on them with a crowbar and is about to give them the Jason Todd special when Pongo and Perdie burst through the window and a surprisingly hardcore fight scene ensues.
What? Nostalgia Critic’s dead, it’s not like he can take the joke with him.
Tibs leads the puppies back to the Colonel’s barn and Pongo and Perdie are finally reunited with them. They also realise that they’re now suddenly in possession of the largest Inbred of Dalmatians in recorded history. One of the puppies tells them that Cruella was planning on skinning them to make a fur coat. Horrified, Pongo and Perdie decide to take the rest of the puppies home with them.
Horace and Jasper arrive at the farm and Pongo and Perdie lead the puppies away while the Captain, the Colonel and Sergeant Tibs fight keep them distracted and hang on just a minute…
Why do all these farm animals have military ranks? Whose army is this anyway?
We get a few scenes of the Dalmatians wandering in the frozen countryside but it’s mostly padding. They stop off at a barn where some nice cows give the puppies milk and Pongo gets a sandwich from a collie.
They finally get to a village where they plan to stowaway on a furniture truck bound for London but Cruella, Horace and Jasper are waiting for them. They disguise themselves as black labradors by rolling in soot but at the last minute Cruella twigs what’s going on and chases after the furniture truck in her car while Horace and Jasper follow in their van. Cruella, now utterly insane, tries to run the van off the road.
But she gets hit by Horace and Jaspers’ van and they all go off the cliff together and the Dalmatians escape.
Meanwhile, back in London, Cruella De Vil has become a massive hit and Roger is now rich. Of course there’s always the chance that Cruella will sue him for slander but hey, Britain’s defamation laws are pretty lax, right? Anita and Roger are still heartbroken but Pongo and Perdie suddenly burst in with their fifteen puppies with a certain degree of accrued interest. Roger’s reaction to all these extra puppies is to say “Pongo, you old rascal!” and that is not how sex works.
Roger announces that they’ll keep the puppies and buy a big house in the country to keep them. I gotta be honest, spending the rest of my life up to my oxters in puppy shit is not my idea of a good time, but they seem alright with it so we’ll call it a happy ending.
101 Dalmatians has a great deal of charm, one great song and some very impressive crowd animation. But I can’t really call it a good movie. There are serious pacing problems, a whole lot of padding and the early London scenes are overall a lot stronger than the ones that come later meaning the movie is on a constant downward slide. So, of course, with all those massive flaws it was a huge hit, one of the top ten films of 1961 and the Disney movie that finally, after twenty three years, toppled Snow White as the studio’s most successful movie.
If the question 101 Dalmatians was to answer was: “Can Disney make feature length animation in a way that is financially viable?” then the answer was a resounding, unqualified “yes”.
If the question was “Can Disney make feature length animations cheaply that are also great movies?” then, by the time 101 Dalmatians finished its conquest of American cinemas, that question remained stubbornly unanswered.
Rough? Yes. But as well as being the first of the Scratchy films this is also probably the best looking. The backdrops are wonderfully detailed, the character designs are charming and the canine models move as beautifully as they did in Lady and the Tramp. Also, there’s no denying that animating ninety nine puppies is a massive technical achievement.
The Leads: 13/20
Pongo is great, Perdie is a bit of a wet blanket and the puppies are largely interchangeable.
The Villain: 17/20
If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.
Supporting Characters: 08/20
Anita and Roger are great, but this movie is too overpopulated by half. There are a lot of dull supporting characters that could very easily have been excised and the overstuffed cast really brings the movie down in my opinion.
The Music: 16/20
The score has a lovely early sixties ambience and one of the all time Disney great villain songs.
FINAL SCORE: 69%
NEXT WEEK: There is a prophesy that says that whomsoever reviews this Sword in this Stone shall be king of all England. Start practicing your curtsy, ‘cos the Unshaved Mouse is in it to win it.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!