Disney // 1961 // 79 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // March 4th, 2008
Disney is one studio whose double dips are often well worth the investment. 101 Dalmatians is the latest in the studio's Platinum Edition releases in which Theo Gluck (Director of Restoration) and his team painstakingly restore these classic animated features to a point where they look even better than they did in their original theatrical premieres. While the bonus features may be padded with superfluous content lacking any real value, the meat of the presentation makes this release a must own for Disney fans.
Tired of the bachelor life, Pongo entices his pet Roger into a walk through Regents Park for a potential love connection. There they meet Perdita and her pet Anita, but its hardly love at first sight. However, with a little coercion, cupid's arrows take hold and a new family is born. It isn't long before the pitter patter of little feet can be heard throughout their London flat...60 feet in fact, from a litter of 15 Dalmatian puppies, each with their own wonderfully unique personality. However, life takes a turn for the clan, when Anita's former schoolmate Cruella dognaps the puppies to use their skins for a new fur coat. With the humans unable to locate the brood, England's canine corps step in for a critical search and rescue to bring the little ones home safe and sound.
Universally revered by animators and animation fans alike, 101 Dalmatians has often been referred to as the zenith of Walt's cinematic tenure, despite the fact that he himself didn't like the way the film turned out. You see, Dalmatians served as a turning point for the studio in many respects. From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) through Sleeping Beauty (1959), Disney animation was known and loved for its lush, romantic, fairy tales. However, with Walt's increasing involvement in television, live action films, and the creation of Disneyland, he left feature animation in the hands of trusted friends Bill Peet (writer), Woolie Reitherman (director), Clyde Geronimi (director), Ken Anderson (production designer), and animators Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, and Marc Davis.
Keep in mind death for an artist is doing the same thing over and over and over again. As the 1950s drew to a close, the world was changing and there was a renaissance of artistry permeating the zeitgeist. Mod fashion emerged from London with a style punctuated by bold colors on minimalist, geometric designs. At the same time, the Pop Art influence had made its way from Europe to the States; its abstract expressionism influencing both fine and commercial artistry alike. Combine that with Tex Avery and Chuck Jones churning out fantastic screwball shorts for MGM and Warner Bros., and Disney animators couldn't help but be swayed by this collective effect.
Walt was always on the lookout for great stories, so it's no surprise that Dodie Smith's best selling children's book The One Hundred and One Dalmatians would capture his attention. He began a long correspondence with Ms. Smith, securing the rights and putting the studio's wonderfully unappreciated story man, Bill Peet, on the job of adapting it. Peet began his career with the studio as an "in-betweener," cleaning up the animators' drawings before they went to ink and paint. But it was his work as a storyboard artist that proved Bill's true value to the studio. In fact, there's a great segment in the bonus materials on Disc Two that shows just how respectful the animators were to the action laid out in Bill's sketches for Dalmatians, almost shot for shot. More importantly, for an animated feature, this is one of Disney's tightest stories and may be may be Bill's greatest contribution to the Disney canon. Unfortunately, his relationship with Walt deteriorated over creative differences on The Jungle Book, but here he was at the top of his game. From the opening scene, we establish the POV of the dogs, their relationship to their "pets," the birth of the puppies, the introduction of Cruella, and the implementation of her devious plan. From there, the action kicks into high gear and sustains us through the end of the picture. There's very little downtime or unnecessary filler to be found; and with that type of framework, it enabled the animators to focus on what they did best.
Dalmatians is a showcase for two of my heroes -- Ken Anderson and Marc Davis, both of whom would become key players in WED, Walt's theme park design team which would later become known as Walt Disney Imagineering. Ken, along with Avant-garde painter Walter Peregoy, would give Dalmatians a look and feel unlike Disney films had ever seen. Gone were the lush, detailed backgrounds of Eyvind Earle (Sleeping Beauty), replaced by an abstract, stylistically skewed, albeit timeless view of London. Painting under Ken's minimalist pencil drawings, Peregoy made the backgrounds a character unto themselves. You can see this not only in the city, but throughout the entire English countryside and especially Hell Hall, where the puppies are held captive. This wonderfully warped and decrepit mansion plays to both the tension and comedy for one of the film's finest sequences.
Marc, on the other hand, was single-handedly responsible for the design and animation on Cruella De Vil, a true rarity for any feature project. Normally, several artists would divide up the workload, each tackling specific sequences by working off model sheets. Here, it's all Marc, and his work is magnificent. Combined with the dead on delivery of Betty Lou Gerson's vocal performance, the two created what is arguably the greatest Disney villain of all time. While she may not possess the magic of the Evil Queen, Maleficent, or Ursula, this chain-smoking, fur-crazed heiress has no filter between her brain and her mouth and will stop and nothing to get what she wants. Everyone around her are nothing more than a means to an end and easily replaced or disposed of. Marc leverages these traits and creates a larger than life personality, stealing the spotlight in every scene she appears, which surprisingly isn't as many as you may think. Unfortunately, this was Marc's final film project for the studio (after which he moved over to Disneyland to help design Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion), but what a way to go out.
When faced with animating 99 Dalmatian puppies for half the film, the team knew it had to take a different approach than used on previous projects. Enter Ub Iwerks, Walt's longtime friend and collaborator. Ub was a genius inventor, whose creative skills kicked into high gear when faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks. When an animated film typically took five to eight years to complete, with each cell being hand inked, painted, and photographed, something had to change. Sleeping Beauty, while a critically acclaimed film, underperformed at the box office leaving feature animation as a cash drain on the studio whose other projects were garnering and demanding more attention. Was this the end of the animated feature film? Not if Ub had anything to say about it. Approaching the Xerox company, who had just introduced revolutionary replication technology for the business world, Ub worked with them to create a Xerography process that would enable the studio to take the animators drawings directly from the table to the screen. This eliminated the painstaking process of inking and saved the studio a boatload of money by closing an entire department of employees. While sadly these incredibly talented women were now out of work, the studio reduced the time needed to create a feature and for the first time allowed the animators' work to appear on screen as intended. This drove Walt crazy. The clean, delineated line work that Disney had become known for was now replaced by a loose sketchiness that, in his mind, looked sloppy and unfinished. They ultimately compromised by teaching the animators to be a little more diligent in their work, but the process gave Disney animation a unique look that would carry the studio through the next 20 years.
Contrary to what you may see on IMDb and other film sources, 101 Dalmatians was not shot in widescreen, which is why this gloriously restored transfer is presented in its original 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio. There's no cropping or squeezing of the frame. Of course, those with widescreen televisions will have to adjust to the non-anamorphic display, which is surprisingly jarring at first. But once you're into the movie, you won't even notice it.
The restoration team deserves all the credit in the world for the work they put into this project. One only need compare the film with the theatrical trailers found in the bonus materials to see how brilliant this new print is. Walt Peregoy's colors pop as never before; all of Ken Anderson's line work is sharp; Marc Davis' green smoke contrails that encircle Cruella add to her deviousness; and little details such as the cameos by Jock and Lady from Lady and the Tramp can be seen crisp and clear for the very first time.
Once again, Disney offers up an enhanced 5.1 surround mix, which plays more to the strengths of yet another fantastic George Bruns underscore. The jazz man does no wrong here, not only enhancing the action and comedy, but amplifying the film's truly emotional moments. Don't get excited for ambient directional effects because the studio is thankfully not in the business of George Lucas-esque revisionist enhancements. But what we do have is a robust audio track in line with a brilliant presentation. Disney also includes 5.1 French and Spanish tracks, as well as the original 1.0 Mono audio for historical comparison.
In terms of bonus materials, here's the only place I feel Disney is falling short. Instead of copping to the fact that there just wasn't a lot of behind-the-scenes content captured during production on Dalmatians, they create features to fill the void. Don't get me wrong, the new documentaries "Redefining the Line" (34 min) and "Drawn to be Bad" (7 min) are much appreciated. For as much of a Disney-phile as I am, I had no idea the team had created models for Cruella's car and Horace and Jasper's truck. A rudimentary forerunner of 3D computer modeling, these vehicles where photographed, Xeroxed to cells, and painted to seamlessly integrate with the film, adding yet another level of realism to the action. And talking with the folks who were part of this project, both today and through previously recorded interviews, only add to the magic. Sadly, Ken Anderson and Marc Davis are no longer with us, but it's still great to hear their recollections of working on the film. Add in comments from some of the biggest names in animation today and you have a solid effort well worth a look.
We get a surprising wealth of studio promotional material from Dalmatians' multiple theatrical releases (1961, 1969, 1979, 1985), including trailers, TV spots, and radio commercials. They've also dug up studio recordings of several unused songs written for the film by Bill Lee and Mel Levin. Fascinating at first, they grow increasingly redundant towards the end with multiple variations on the Kanine Krunchies commercial. Throw in seven photo galleries from the Disney archives -- character design, concept art, storyboards, live action reference models, and more -- as well as two VH1-inspired pop-up trivia tracks (one for families, one for Disney fanatics), and you have a respectable amount of content.
However, to fill up this 2-disc special edition, they start inventing filler. First up, a music video from the requisite Disney pop princess du jour interpreting the film's one classic tune, "Cruella De Vil," by Hannah Montana guest star and Wizards of Waverly Place star Selena Gomez. On the upside, it's not as painful as previous audio re-imaginings. There's also a unique 12 min visual recreation of the written correspondence between Walt and author Dodie Smith, with Lisa Davis (the voice of Anita) vocalizing Ms. Smith's words. Nothing earth-shattering, but a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between a studio head and an optioned author, something we rarely see or hear about.
Now here's where it gains painful for the adults. The Tamagotchi craze, which hit its stride on The Aristocats re-release, is in full force with Virtual Dalmatians. If your kids have an interest in feeding, grooming, and teaching tricks to a computer generated dog while neglecting their own pets or siblings, have at it. I can think of better things to do with my time. Moving right along, we have the Puppy Profiler which matches you (as a puppy) up with your perfect Disney animated human pet. If you've been to the Beast's Library at Disney's California Adventure, this will seem very familiar to you. And we end with two incredibly painful Fun with Language games which border on criminal use of company funds and feature designers' time.
Firmly positioned on the A-List of Disney animated features, 101 Dalmatians showcases the creative genius of the team Walt put together. At a svelte 79 min, this raucous, hilarious, and often touching adventure stands the test of time and shows just how much fun they were having, while taking us along for the ride. Although, I would rather see Disney release a quality single-disc Platinum Edition than pandering to the masses with these smoke and mirror tactics. It tarnishes the magic.
A must own release for all Disney fans, and a must see for anyone who has yet to experience the film.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* 101 Pop-Up Trivia Facts for the Family
* 101 Pop-Up Trivia Facts for the Fan
* "Redefining the Line: The Making of 101 Dalmatians"
* "Cruella De Vil: Drawn to be Bad"
* "Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney"
* Theatrical Trailers
* Radio and TV Spots
* Art Galleries
* Unused Music from the Archives
* "Disney Virtual Dalmatians"
* "Puppy Profiler"
* "Cruella De Vil" Music Video
* "Fun with Language" Games