101 Dalmatians Review

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) Review

 

What do I know about the film?

We have been here before and I am sure we will be here again: Disney needed a hit. Or more accurately, an animated hit. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was supposed to be the Toy Story 3 of the princess movies following on from Cinders and S. White. Instead she was the…what third film tanked? Hang on…

I am struggling to find a third film in a trilogy that was a box office flop. Plenty that were commercial failures but even Alien 3 did pretty well. And in fairness, SB didn’t do that bad, just not well enough. This analogy was horrible and I am awkwardly abandoning it.

Well anyway, point is poor Snoozy Joe (I don’t know) was too sodding expensive and it was looking likely that the Animation Studio would close and Disney would focus on amusement parks and live action flicks. But Walter was conflicted. He wanted to save money and yet he was not happy with the solution which amounted to: Let’s photocopy this shit.

Ok, I am over simplifying what I don’t understand. What actually happened was…Oh no. Right the first time. The technology was referred to as Xerography but it basically amounted to photocopying the pictures of the spotty dogs as opposed to redrawing them. As a result the budget was cut in half: Et voilà! An additional result was a sort of scratchy, hard line, rough (or ruff? Hee hee) look to the animation, a style that would define Disney art work for some time. Walt felt the style was too big a departure from the whole fantasy genre that the animated films were geared towards and squarely blamed art director Ken Anderson being proper horrible to him about it and leaving poor Kenny really sad. But this particular one sided feud has a happy ending. Shortly before he died, Disney saw Ken again and…Well I will let Ken tell the heart warming story:

‘He said “You know that thing you did on Dalmatians”. He didn’t say anything else, but he just gave me this look and I knew that all was forgiven and in his opinion maybe what I did on Dalmatians wasn’t so bad. That was the last time I ever saw him.’

Wow. Seriously? He was the Lord of the Dicks and instead of apologising or even just thanking Ken for his hard work he gave him a look? And…that was enough? God damn this guy was powerful huh?

Oh and was it a hit? Yes, yes it was. It surpassed their previous success stories to become the biggest grossing animated film of all time, it was the highest grossing film of 1961 in the US and remains one of the most successful Disney films of all time both critically and box office wise, despite being oft forgot when people are recalling the cannon. A personal observation more than anything but one I felt needed to be noted as if you had asked me before this project to name what I would guess to be the biggest successes of the Studio I wouldn’t have thought for a second ‘Dalmatians’ would have made the list, let alone land in the top 3. Which it did. Maybe that is why Walt Disney was able to ‘forgive’ the art director. People really, really like talking dogs.

As with ‘Wonderland’ ‘Pan’ and ‘Poppins’ Disney needed to obtain the rights to a British novel to make the movie. However author Dodie Smith would not make an especially compelling subject in a sequel to ‘Saving Mr Banks’ as she was delighted to hand over the rights to Disney and acted like a competition winner about the whole thing. Whenever the studio referred to the author for her approval she would heap praise on their designs and story, telling them they were improving it.

But was she right?

 

Did I see it as a child? 

Yes. I had it on VHS and really loved it. I had no less than 6 dalmatians related toys because of this film, my favourite being a Rolly plushie. He is one of the puppies in the film. I remember choosing him from the big pile of toys in the Disney Store and deciding that the cashier was the coolest man in the world because he flipped the toy in the air and caught it in the bag, uttering coolly: ‘Ah. Rolly Pup.’ like he did that shit every day which, thinking about it, he probably did. From that moment on I could often be found with the toy I referred to exclusively as Rolly Pup. Rolly Pup would go on to perish in a tragic mould accident in the Isle of Skye. RIP you adorable little bastard.

He looked like this 😦 I really miss him you guys

While I really liked the film, the sing-a-long VHS (101 notes of fun!), my three (maybe 4…) cuddlies and my weirdly unnecessary but oddly hypnotic Dalmatian Chase

(This was literally all it did.)

I was most fond of the book which differs quite a bit from the Disney version in a few interesting ways. For a start, slightly more realistically, Pongo’s Wife (her name is Missis in the book) can’t feed 15 puppies herself so they bring in an abandoned dog named Perdita to help. Also the little puppy who nearly dies is named The Cadpig of the litter and is significantly smaller and less able than her siblings…And it is hinted that Cruella is actually a demon from Hell. What I am trying to get across is the book (not the sequel. Never the sequel) is actually worth reading as it has some cool moments and choices that did not make the big screen although the pace isn’t exactly neck breaking.

 

Synopsis:

Pongo plays wingman to his ‘Pet’ Roger (he claims in his opening monologue his pet needs a wife but from what I can see he just needs a cleaner…they are not the same thing) and the pair of them end up marrying a dog named Perdy and a nice young woman named Anita respectively. Although the gang are delighted with the arrival of puppies they are perplexed by the ever present Cruella De Vil, a school friend of Anita’s, who seems very keen to buy the puppies. And she loves fur coats. These two things could be linked. Somehow. After Roger tells her to piss off and stop being creepy the puppies are stolen. Again, there might be a link here. When both the regular police and Scotland Yard fail to find…

Wait. What?

Scotland Yard?

Seriously?

They…they rang Scotland Yard? To find some dogs?

Fine ok…I’ll go with it…So then Pongo and Perdy set out to get them back…And get more than they bargained for! See title for further clarification.

 

What Works:

The introduction is great and normally I hate films that have a voice over at the start and nowhere else in the film, it is possibly my biggest film pet (hey hey!) peeve. And Disney really overuses this trope. But here the narrator isn’t just a disembodied voice but a character in the story and this is simply his inner monologue. Ok, so Disney go to this well a lot too, and like most narrative devices it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense but Rod Taylor has an excellent voice to listen to and he makes Pongo very charming. I love the bit where he looks out the window for appropriate partners for him and his human: ‘Too fancy…much too fancy…too old…too young…’ the delivery is spot on and he laments that this might be an insurmountable problem. After about 7 seconds of searching! Come on Pongs, dating is hard and you gotta want it!

I like the fact that Pongo’s razor sharp mind is lost on humans due to his goofy dogness, a quality straight from the books, and it is a nice juxtaposition to hear the voice over explaining that he just wants to stir things up a bit to attract the attention of the women and then promptly steals Roger’s hat and runs away with it. Smooth. It should not surprise you in the least that the act of getting the two humans wet by hurling them into a pond ends in marriage. Seemingly later that day due to a time jump.

So after nailing down the hot biddies the little family are expecting puppies. And that is when we meet Cruella. Ah Cruella De Vil. I always enjoyed her entrance into the story as it reminded me a bit of how my parents both had ‘friends’ they didn’t seem to like very much who would often drop by unannounced much to their apparent dismay. Immediately you see why nobody in the house is a fan of her but she is not pathologically evil. At least…not right away. She storms in demanding to see the puppies, putting out cigarettes in cupcakes, laughing at the size of the house and loudly requesting that the dogs come to her, oblivious to the fact that she is about four seconds away from getting her ass bit. It is all over very quickly and out she goes but you now know this person: She is a self obsessed lovie who possibly believes her loud, straight talking antics are charming to the ‘little’ people who are in awe of her. I know her. And so do you. Ok, the bit where she kidnaps some dogs to make a fur coat is a little out there, but the basic characterisation is not a witch type: She is just a nuisance.

It all works: The darrllling voice work by Betty Lou Gerson, her sunken bony design, her almost pathological hatred of Roger, the bad driving, the way she appears in the doorway following a clap of thunder moments after the puppies arrive. I adored her from the moment Anita timidly asked: ‘How are you?’ And got the reply ‘Miserable darling, as usual, perfectly wretched’ Seriously. I know her.

I like the way Disney took risks with their villains right from the start. I mean when she turns nasty, she really turns nasty. It is always fun to compare retro movies to present day ones and I have to admit it is quite brave to have a human character say about a bunch of cute puppies: ‘I don’t care how you kill the little beasts but do it and DO IT NOW!’

(You can view the clip on youtube if you click on it)

The choice to set the film in ‘present’ day as opposed to some fantasy once-upon-a-time kingdom really adds to the impact of her character. She is not a predestined baddie, a born witch who was raised to be evil, she has no real score to settle. And yet she drew attention to herself by stealing these puppies. Think about it: It is mentioned in a throwaway line that the other puppies not from the Pongo and Perdy litter are from pets shops and were bought legally. However the urgency in the above scene comes from the fact that the police are going out of their way to find the dogs she stole from the little family, who, for some reason, have a lot of pull with the coppers. The only two times I have ever had to ring the police it took days for them to come and see me for ten minutes, but sure, lost dogs are a serious fucking matter.

Anyway, when you consider how many she already had, was it worth the risk to steal those 15? Hell, she even had to be interviewed by the police because of course the family who she swore to get even with immediately suspected her. So she is on their books now so when she goes out wearing a spotty coat or tries to sell them or whatever I have a feeling someone will make the link. But she went this far, put everything on the line because…her friend married a man she didn’t like. When she demands the puppies and Roger declines she looks to Anita for support and doesn’t get it. She is left humiliated by the man she despises. She felt disrespected and her fury goes beyond her usual impatience with the world and she slams their door so hard the glass shatters. Either that or hurls herself through it.

Her elation at seeing a miserable looking Roger staring up at her from the papers sends her into a fit of hilarity. When she phones up to sympathise with Anita about the stolen puppies, Roger grabs the phone and demands ‘Where are they???’ And you hear a hurt Cruella shout: ‘Anita!’ demanding to speak to her friend only. She wants her pal to herself. That’s it. She wants to hurt them all for dissing her and for phasing her out. Hell maybe she more than liked Anita. Who knows? All I do know is, that Cruella has issues. Oh and she really likes making animals into coats.

Because she is human (well…Like I say there are hints that she isn’t. Her old family home is called Hell Hall for the love of Lucifer) her behaviour is all the more terrifying. I mean: Watch the above scene. Not even two minutes long and she lists various ways to kill puppies, throws a bottle of alcohol into a fire and slaps both of her employees in the face. She needs help. Seriously Cruels.

The first step is to admit you have a probl-OH MY GOD!

She is a deliciously campy villain but is also a very real threat. The scene where the dogs black up (or cover themselves in soot) in order to sneak past her is one of the tensest moments in the whole film and easily one of my favourites. The little shots of her driving past the window slowly and looking in are totally terrifying. And then when they try and get to their exit she sits and watches, slowly putting it together that the sudden appearance of 100 or so black labs may not be a total coinkidink. One of the puppies nervously points out: ‘She’s watching us Dad…’ and you really feel the strain. I wouldn’t want Cruella De Vil after me. So there you have it. Cruella is another smash hit of an antagonist who will remain in the Disney hall of fame forever. Even if she is just wearing an ordinary everyday fur coat rather than dog skin one.

‘101 Dalmatians’ introduces us to a world where animals all work together to get shit done. They are cool in a crisis, competent, committed and much more able and willing than humans to solve problems. The dogs all join together via a communication system called the Twilight Bark to find the puppies. From there the mission goes like a well oiled machine with support from other dogs all over the country. It is a cool explanation for why dogs seem to chat to each other in real life and includes a few cameos from previous Disney canines. As with all Disney films there is a myriad of supporting characters, the best of which is Sergeant Tibbs, a well spoken cat who goes out of his way to rescue the puppies, even going so far as to try and stand in front of all 99 of them when Cruella’s henchmen approach to kill him. It is quite an impressive stand that he wearily dismisses as ‘Routine’ Yes. He also has a wonderfully dry sense of humour as well as a sense of duty. I would salute him. If he wasn’t a drawing.

Ok I would do it anyway…

So the puppies…While there are issues with them that will be discussed below, they are pretty adorable and I loved them as a kid. I am pretty sure their design and shtick would still be a favourite with kids today. I don’t have much else to say about them here, but I genuinely count them as a plus overall. The heroes are all seriously likeable and charming and this makes it easy to warm to them and root for their success. These are some Dognified Dogs. Like Dignified but for Dogs.

A choice that I struggled to decide if it is more a good thing than a bad thing is the decision not to have too much music. There is the Cruella De Vil song that Roger composes to annoy his wife (Seriously? What happened with these three??? I’ll bet Cruella tried to kiss Anita at Boarding School as a ‘joke’…Sorry. I am really set on this theory of Cruella’s unrequited love for Anita the more I think about it) which is great and memorable. It also shows up again at the end as the song that makes the family conveniently rich. Fantastic. I love that a song about the evilness of an old school friend appealed to the record buying public at large and became a massive hit at Christmas time. I know Cruella is busy trying not to be caught murdering pets in the name of fashion but I would think she would maybe take legal action against the track? Hell, she somehow survives the massive car crash at the end of the film so maybe that is what the sequel should have been: ‘101 Dalmatians: A Spot of Legal Trouble!’

Back to the music. There is a very short but amusing song at the end where the family decide to take in all the dogs and acquire a ‘Dalmatian Plantation’ but…that is it. I am not sure if the film needs more or not…I suppose I would always rather they didn’t bother than try and fill the space with badly executed songs just to justify the runtime , an error Disney competitors trying to be more like the House of Mouse make all the time. But it is kind of jarring too. There is a moment where I ALWAYS expect a song when the exhausted dogs take shelter in a barn and some friendly cows ask them: ‘However did you make it all this way?’ It is the ultimate I feel a song coming on prompt line and yet…They don’t go there. The song ‘Cruella De Vil’ is good enough that I sort of resent the absence of more tunes but the incidental music is pretty excellent, particularly in the early scenes and tense moments, so I plumped for keeping music in the ‘what works’ part of the review.

It is a pretty funny film too. It has a cheerful vibe the whole way through despite the scenario presented (stealing puppies to murder and skin them) being one of the most unappealing ever. I suppose that is why the jolly comedic undercurrent is necessary and it is largely successful. I love the warmth to the humour like when Roger and Pongo wait outside as Perdy has her puppies and they feel equally nervous. When the news of the puppies starts rolling, they both do a little dance and as the number increases Roger shakes his paw and says: ‘Pongo you old rascal!’ I love that. Because of course, the number of children you have is a direct comment on your virility. Well Pongo’s smug face suggests he takes it that way. He has super dog sperm and wants you to know it.

I also love the TV shows the characters watch that really capture the period the film is set in. There is the dog favourite ‘Thunderbolt’ which is about a hero dog who gets into a tight spot with a villain. As they are tumbling towards a waterfall, the voiceover asks how Thunderbolt is ever going to make it this time and then it ends. I have watched enough of these old shows to know Ol’ Thunder is going to be saved by editing. And there is the dementedly intriguing ‘What’s my Crime?’ something from the novel that the cockney brothers like to watch where esteemed guests try and guess what a criminal did to end up in jail. Both of these scenes are actually quite good which when you consider all you are doing is watching characters watch TV, it is quite an achievement. The Thunder scene is the only time we see the parents and the kids interacting before they are separated and ‘What’s my Crime?’ acts as a distraction for Tibbs to rescue the puppies.

While the drop in animation quality is notable it does look cool and fits the style they are going for. ‘101 Dalmatians’ is cited as one of the best Disney films by Time Magazine because it is witty, charming and: ‘ the least pretentious cartoon feature Walt Disney has ever made’ I think that sums up the film very well actually. It really is very easy viewing and is not trying to be more than it is. There are some truly lovely character touches but it never indulges in schmaltz. It has wit that is quintessentially English without drawing too much attention to it. Like the original source material it really hits the spot. SPOT. Gettit?

Sorry. That is the 4th dog pun and the second one that was spot related. I was better than this once.

I’m so sorry.

But it does. I don’t see how anyone could dislike this particular Disney outing. Even cat lovers get a cat! But that is not to say it is without foibles…

 

What Doesn’t Work:

The biggest problem I have with ‘101 Dalmatians’ does not come from what it is but from what it could have been. And basically what it could have been was 60’s ‘Finding Nemo.’

This film could really do with some of the heart of Pixar. Because of the sheer number of puppies at stake there is just no way we can feel emotionally connected to all of them and so Disney compromised with none of them. They just went for the cute factor instead of giving them personalities and while this sort of works it is not as satisfying as it could have been.

Ok, so we get names and traits for a few of them: There is Lucky who is the littlest one who nearly died at the start. Patch who wants to be tough. Rolly who is always hungry…and…who else? Erm…There is Penny…Freckles…Pepper…they…Have names. Ultimately we are given no reason to think of the zillion of puppies with any fondness and while that was a fairly impossible task we are given nothing to work with.

When Nannie realises the dogs have gone she howls in devastation: ‘Patch! Lucky! Rolly!’ Her ‘And the rest!!!’ hangs in the air unsaid. The same thing happens when the parents are reunited with their beloved children. It is all very low key, very ‘Good to see you, my children…Especially the ones whose names we have already mentioned! Top news that you survived the attempt on your life just now! This and the bit of spinach I just got out of my teeth have been the highlights of my day!’

With ‘Nemo’ you really feel the doubt and pain of the Father who simply can’t go on without knowing his child is safe. It is harrowing at times but it rings true to life. ‘Dalmatians’ really commits to the ‘We are English, by jove’ thing, especially for an American film but it makes some of the reactions of the dogs a little cold and underwhelming.

Ok I may be nitpicking a bit because the delicate flow of the film might be tipped over too far one way if they had gone in a more sentimental direction. And the earlier scene of them all watching the TV show about a hero dog captures a nice family dynamic very successfully. But I maintain that the film is a victim of all its own title: 101 dalmatians = too many protagonists. And this is why this film is not as memorable as some of the others.

The run time is 79 minutes. So Pongo and Perdy’s cross country sprint to find their kids is chopped down somewhat and, again, there are hints that with a bigger budget and more time to set things up this could have been a bigger deal. The journey takes up a lot of the book so there were a lot of potential exciting moments to choose from that are wasted.

There is one moment in the film where, as dramatic music plays, the two dogs leap into an icy lake…That’s it. Scene ends. Wait what? It really feels like this is going to be a fighting for life kind of moment. But no. They just…swim off. And then back to the other characters. Listen to the music that accompanies this bit: Seriously. Even the music assumed someone was going to nearly drown:

If I had been an editor at Disney (if only) I would have sacrificed the terrible cockney Baddies doing the Skinny/Fat, Smart/Stupid routine over and over and cut down the amount of time we spend on the Colonel Dog who is fairly useless. Harsh? I want to see the parents fighting for their lives ok?!? I like parental sacrifices with a dramatic pay off, analyse me all you want (Oh the Cat’s in the Cradle…) it would have been better.

I just feel that they make the whole endeavour look far too easy. Ok, there is some mild peril with the baddies and the big chase towards the end is batshit mental (Best/Worst line of the film is uttered by the disgruntled man blissfully unaware why Cruella is chasing his van: ‘Crazy women drivers!’) but the whole trip is largely without incident.

We only see the sad Humans once just before they are reunited with their pets and then some and they are delighted with the fact they have a trillion more animals to care for! Sure, who wouldn’t be thrilled to take on 101 adorable creatures! Yeah! ‘Everyone now! We’ll have a Dalmatians Plantation! Where our population can grow…Lucky! Lucky! Stop screwing your sister! That is just not appropriate! Oh God…there’s going to be more of them…Call Cruella darling, let’s see if she doesn’t want to take one or two of them off our hands…Maybe she hasn’t heard the slanderous song I wrote about her yet…’

So while it is clear I don’t enjoy ALL of the supporting characters, what of my beloved Rolly? Well…his main thing is he is fat. Because…Movies. The other thing about him is he is a monumental fuck up. Some of the elements that best him include stairs, ice, snoot, having his tail grabbed and his own appetite. My favourite thing about this was actually the reaction of the two people watching it with me. Understandably due to my history with the toy I always liked the Rolly Pup character the most and was dismayed to find that my viewing companions did not find him as wonderful as me. Every time he screwed up, even the times when he didn’t, up came the cry of: ‘Fucking Rolly!’ Even after the film was over, the mere mention of his name sent them into a fit of eye rolling and ‘He was useless…Fucking Rolly!’ Why are fat characters always incompetent? It is not cool, Hollywood. This paragraph was originally in the ‘What Works’ section because I had a good time watching my ever exasperated friends blaming Rolly for everything from the dogs being discovered by the cockney brothers to the buffering being slow on the video but ultimately the trope of ‘Fat character is fat so…laughs?’ really ought to die.

Pictured: The albatross around all our necks. 

 

Conclusion: 

While the middle could do with a bit more action and the lack of depth expressed by the characters is notable when compared to the more modern family film, ‘101 Dalmatians’ is a solid star of an adventure that is easy peasy to consume, enjoy and then rewind to start again. The villain is pitch perfect, it is warm, funny, sweet and even though I am still baffled how it has grown to be one of the 20 biggest box office giants of all time (It beat James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’? Remember what a big deal that film was?) perhaps I should accept a film that has nothing to hate can only be enjoyed by all.

 

Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 4

Cruella throwing the bottle in the fire, Jasper creeping around and whistling for the puppies, Cruella searching for the puppies through the window, Cruella’s crazy eyes

Seriously. Look at those things.

Sleep Well! 

 

Best Song: 

As I mentioned above there is not much to choose from although I was tempted to go with one of the melody only pieces that flow through the story so well but Hell you know what one it is…All hail the De Vil:

 

Next Time: Did you ever want to see an exciting, well paced cartoon about the legendary King Arthur and his Knights? Well tough luck because up next is The Sword in the Stone (1963)

 

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One response to “101 Dalmatians Review

  1. Pingback: There’s Always An Outside | janetkwest

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