Better late than never, right? Over the next eleven weeks, we’ll be entering the Disney period where talking animals ruled the roost. You’ll see humans in several of these, but the worlds created are ones where the animals talk, and it’s completely okay to humans. In a few cases, I’ll be watching these movies for the first time, or I’ll be watching them all the way through for the first time. While there are one or two movies in this span that I love, it’s not many. Thankfully, today’s film is one that I’ve revised my opinion on!
I haven’t seen 101 Dalmatians in at least fifteen years. I have, unfortunately, seen the two shitty live-action movies (including a remake of this) with Glenn Close; I try to forget those. With that, I was expecting to be in for a long eleven weeks, but found myself immersed in 101 Dalmatians in a way I’ve never been before. It could be because the movie is self-aware of the talking animals, and creates a world where the humans are just as big a part of the action as the animals. There are ways to compare this to Lady and the Tramp, but where that film failed is in making me believe the animals were just as smart, if not smarter, than the humans. The British sensibility of the movie as well made for a pleasant experience overall.
Dalmatians Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor…REALLY?) and Perdita (voiced by Cate Bauer) meet and fall in love, eventually having fifteen puppies. When the evil Cruella De Vil (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson) envisions making a spotted coat, she plans to kidnap Pongo and Perdita‘s puppies. As the frantic parents go on an adventure to reunite with their children they soon discover that Cruella may have more puppies than anticipated.
A fundamental change in the animation process defined Disney movies in the 1960s. Earlier films had everything painted by hand, but that changed after the commercial failure of Sleeping Beauty (where I praised the artistry of the animation). Disney needed to cut down on costs, and did so through animation. Between 101 Dalmatians and The Rescuers in 1977, a process called Xerograph, where everything was xeroxed onto the backgrounds, was utilized. It made the process quicker and easier, but boy does the animation appear cheap. The scratchy look of 101 Dalmatians didn’t pass muster with Walt Disney, who was said to have complained about the look. I have to agree with him as the backgrounds look sloppy and unfinished. The muted colors and lack of distinct lines don’t have the pop of past Disney works. With the background, especially, items blend into each other, and colors extend past their borders. In one scene, Nanny (voiced by Martha Wentworth) walks up a staircase with the opposite wall supposedly loaded with photos. Unfortunately, all we see on the wall is empty squares that are the same color as the wall behind them. It leaves an overall tone of forgetfulness, and it’s a downgrade in Disney’s craftsmanship, in my opinion. The opening credits are fantastic though, probably my favorite sequence in a while. As with the foundation of the movie itself, the credits integrate and actually set-up the movie. The blobs of spots tell the audience what the movie is all about, whilst showing hand-drawn dogs. You also have a large Hidden Mickey in the first frame.
For all the supposed skimpiness in the background department, I can’t say that the animation on the titled Dalmatians isn’t impressive. Each puppy was animated individually, and they are true individuals, for the most part. Only six have names, and about a handful are fleshed out enough for the audience to care about them, but the placement of spots and design is unique. I can only imagine what drawing 101 Dalmatians (literally!) would be like; this is where the Xerography process is an advantage! My personal favorite has to be Rolly (possibly based on Disney animator Rolly Crump?) I have a soft spot for constantly hungry characters because that’s my constant refrain, too! Of course, the puppies are meant to invoke sympathy in the audience, and it works. What type of sadistic woman wants a coat made of puppies? It sounds like the punchline to a bad joke. I can only imagine what PETA thinks of 101 Dalmatians.
Speaking of Cruella, she marks the first appearance of a trope that would follow in several other Disney movies of the next decade or so: the lanky, unkempt woman. I’m comparing Cruella to Madame Medusa in The Rescuers. Both women worship an unobtainable, expensive object, and are animated identically. Their personalities are also equivalently flamboyant; almost Broadway show-esque. I have no idea how they felt the audience would believe Cruella and Perdita’s owner Anita (voiced by Lisa Davis) were once “old school friends.” Doesn’t it look like Cruella is a fair bit older than Anita?
The actual narrative and script is put together in a way that acknowledges adult viewers, and doesn’t boils things down by pushing things under the guise of being a fantasy for children. The opening scene dispenses with the sugary romance that another movie could have drawn out into an entire film in itself. Pongo sets out to find a mate for his human Roger (voiced by Ben Wright), discovers Perdita and Anita walking, there’s a scene of them courting and boom, married. These opening moments could have been inane, I mean children don’t care about romance, get to the talking animals; but the set-up plays out like a romantic comedy made for adults.
It’s my key reason why 101 Dalmatians is better than Lady and the Tramp; because these character aren’t just talking animals. In Lady, we only hear the verbal discussions between the animal characters. We never engaged in their minds, and thus only got a surface reading of them all. Here, Pongo sets the tone by having an interior discussion with himself. The other characters are surface, but from the opening scenes the plot is set-up to not be one specific to animals. The puppies are treated by Roger, Anita, and Nanny like human children. Pongo and Perdita become no different from a human couple going out to save their kids. The adventure of the puppies, Pongo, and Perdita going through the elements to get back home does become tiresome. Mostly because it’s a repetitious series of walking, shelter, walking, but the first half has bonded you to the characters so much that you can’t help but want them to succeed.
101 Dalmatians is also the least musically inclined of the Disney movies. All of the previous ones can be considered musicals, but that’s not the case here. Roger is a songwriter, and the only song we hear is “Cruella De Vil” which, I will say, is a catchy, jazzy track evocative of the decade. I don’t believe music is necessary in this film, it would drop the realism that the movie establishes, but it’s another notable shift from what we’ve seen before; again, emphasizing that the 60s marked a complete tonal shift from the Disney that started out.
101 Dalmatians is a new look for the Disney canon, and it’s a gamble that pays off. The animation is a regretful downgrade, but the simplicity of the story, and the desire to not present these characters are simply cute talking animals, elevates the movie to one that acknowledges its growing adult fanbase. I’m not sure if the rewatch factor is there, or if I’d buy this on DVD, but I’m happy to have rewatched it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.