If you asked me to name the most visually stunning Disney animated feature, I'd probably have to go with the 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. It remains an almost impossibly gorgeous film, filled to the brim with rich, subtle animation, dazzling colors, terrific character design and a timeless sense of classical beauty. Alas, not enough moviegoers agreed: the film struggled at the box office, and soon Walt Disney began to contemplate the possibility that he might have to close the animation studio. The company's signature brand of animation was simply too expensive. Then, just as things were looking bleak, longtime Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks presented a solution: Xerox.
Xerox allowed artists to have their drawings transferred directly to the animation cels, preventing the need to have drawings recreated (and slightly reinterpreted) by professional inkers. The animators themselves loved the idea, as it meant that their work would be seen in its purest form. However, the victory came at a price: the Xerox process was unable to eliminate the jagged black outlines of the original drawings (it merely produced exact replicas of those drawings, after all), and the animation looked rougher and less polished as a result. This process made it possible for the studio to produce One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which only cost half as much as it would have using the old methods. Disney himself accepted Xerox as a necessary evil, but disliked both the rougher look of the film and Ken Anderson's background design.
While it must be admitted that One Hundred and One Dalmatians has a rougher, less smooth look than its predecessors, it must also be admitted that the style works rather beautifully within the context of this particular story. While most of the previous Disney films were lush, beautiful fairy tales and fantasies, Dalmatians was a modern, comparatively realistic adventure. There are traces of jazz on the soundtrack, and the slightly “dirtier” look of the film feels apt for the tale's warm-but-humble setting. The movie remains a charmer that offers a skillful blend of playful humor, sinister villainy and familial warmth.
The story (for the three or four of you who aren't familiar with it) begins with a British man named Roger (Ben Wright, The Jungle Book) and a Dalmatian named Pongo (Rod Taylor, The Time Machine). They lead a quiet life in a small apartment, as the former writes music and the latter patiently waits to be taken on his evening walk. Eventually, Pongo decides it's time for both he and Roger to find mates. Roger meets the lovely Anita (Lisa Davis, Queen of Outer Space), Pongo meets Anita's equally lovely dalmatian Perdita (Cate Bauer), wedding bells ring and our friendly foursome moves into a new home. Soon, Perdita is pregnant, and everyone begins eagerly anticipating the day her puppies finally arrive.
One person is a little too eager. That would be Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson, The Fly), a demented, savage woman who would love nothing more than to turn those little dalmatians into a new fur coat. Roger and Anita resist her bribes and tell her the puppies aren't for sale, but the heart wants what it wants. Shortly after the fifteen (!) puppies are born, Cruella kidnaps them and locks them up in a room with dozens of other dalmatian puppies she's collected. Naturally, Pongo and Perdita immediately begin working on a rescue, but can they really save all ninety-nine puppies?
Of course they can (this is a Disney movie, after all), but that doesn't make Cruella any less intimidating. She's one of the most frightening Disney villains of all time, all jagged edges, smoke rings and savage laughter. Her behavior is impulsive and maniacal; she acts decisively in situations where other villains would deliver monologues. She has no buried humanity, no secret childhood trauma, no suave surface-level charisma – as her name implies, she's pure, unadulterated evil. One senses that she would skin Shere Khan and Scar just for giggles. She may not have a lot of screen time, but there's no question that she's the film's most memorable element.
The rest of the movie offers a genial, low-key British charm, which should prove a welcome comfort to young viewers freaked out by Cruella's scenes. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Roger, whose good-natured humor and generous spirit aptly summarizes the film's overall tone. Over the course of 79 minutes, we're treated to funny, bumbling henchmen (Horace and Jasper are murderous, sure, but kids are bound to find them amusing), the expected gallery of colorful supporting characters, some dryly amusing narration from Pongo, a handful of well-staged action sequences, blink-and-you'll-miss-them Lady and the Tramp cameos, a delightfully catchy song (no, not the Kanine Krunchies jingle), adorable puppy hijinks and some clever bits of dialogue. It's not quite at the top of the pile of Disney animated classics, but the movie has aged remarkably well despite (contemplates terrible joke) the “ruff” animation (flees in shame).
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 79 minutes
Release Year: 1961