The Great Disney Blogathon: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
|October 13, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Part of the reason I embarked on this blogging project was to have an excuse to watch all the Disney movies in chronological order (sequels aside), something I’ve never done before. It’s been an interesting experience seeing the company’s style and output change as new creators and technologies rise and fall, as cultural values evolve and aesthetics shift – and I hope that it, at least a little, gives me some insight into how the audience at the time felt upon the arrival of each new movie. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated Cinderella, for example, until I watched it after plowing through six anthologies.1
Through that lens, going from Sleeping Beauty to One Hundred and One Dalmatians is jarring, to say the least. Even though they’re only two years apart, almost everything about these two films is different. I say almost because there’s something about the figures that carries over, particularly in the animals – an angular elegance, sharp corners and slender limbs, something very modern and graphic and less cuddly than the critters that came before. But that’s about it. Tonally, visually, musically…they’re completely different. And there are two massive changes that would set the stage for the next couple decades of Disney movies, closing the door on, well, the era of Walt’s involvement in the films, and leading the way to something a bit more ramshackle, a lot less epic – but not necessarily less beloved. I’ll leave it to you guys to decide.
The first of these changes I hadn’t really thought about until the first brassy notes of the opening credits kicked up – but hey, that’s jazz! Roger writes popular music! Which is to say: One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the first Disney movie to be set “now,” or at least somewhere in the vicinity of 1961, complete with souped-up cars, beatnik artists, swinging tunes, and television.2 Aside from the occasional flock of bobbysoxers in the anthologies, all Disney movies up until this point had been set in either Ye Olden Times or some vaguely bucolic Victorian/Edwardian era where men were men and women wore high-button shoes. (Mid-century Americans thought of the Nifty Nineties the way we think of, well, mid-century America: amusingly old-fashioned, conservative, and safe.) Dalmatians kicked off a trend of either modern movies, or historical settings with gleefully deliberate anachronisms, and though it would take until freaking 1988 for Disney to fully embrace that newfangled rock ‘n’ roll with Oliver and Company, they at least finally started swinging, and kept swinging with The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. Switching over from Sleeping Beauty, with its meticulously medieval aesthetic, is quite a jump.
The other big change is purely visual, and arose out of necessity. Naturally, animating over a hundred spotted dogs was a Herculean task Walt had set for his animators. (As the legendary Chuck Jones, over at Warner Brothers, said, “Of course, only the Disney studio would think of doing a hundred and one spotted dogs. We have trouble doing one spotted dog.”) Supposedly the movie contains a grand total of 6,469,952 spots: 72 for Pongo, 68 for Perdita, and 32 for each puppy. That would have been impossible the old way, but once again, it was Ub Iwerks to the rescue. This time, he’d created a camera that used the brand-new Xerography technology, which allowed the animators to copy the dogs and spots instead of hand-drawing every single one.3
The Xerox technique also allowed Ub to transfer the animators’ drawings directly to the cels, skipping the inking stage. This saved time and money – even with all those dogs to draw, Dalmatians came in at $2 million less than Sleeping Beauty – while retaining the loose energy of the original artwork. (Any of you readers who draw know how much better the sketch always is than the inked version.) This “rough-line style,” markedly different from Disney’s trademark smooth aesthetic, works beautifully with the rest of the movie, particularly the backgrounds, which were done by having the artists paint loose shapes to represent the object in question, then photocopying the outlines over them. (This look was very popular in late 50s/early 60s animation and looks either effortlessly stylish or lazy and cheap depending on the skill of the artists. The artists on Dalmatians were very skilled.) However, that sketchy Xerox look remained a staple of Disney films for the next 20 years, and it didn’t always work as well as it did in Dalmatians.
And here’s where I admit my bias: I don’t love the Xerox look. Like I said, it works in Dalmatians, but too often, especially after Walt’s death when the studio was struggling and quality control slipped, it looks sloppy and unfinished. I also think of lot of the studio’s weakest films fall into this era, and I’m not sure if it’s my dislike of the Xerox look that causes my apathy for these movies or vice versa, but there you have it.4 It’s why I felt a bit sad closing off the last Blogathon post, and closing the door on the more classic Disney look, at last for a while. It doesn’t help that Walt’s imminent death hangs over this era pretty heavily, at least for me.
And, well…I’m pretty firmly neutral on Dalmatians, overall. It’s never been one of my favorites. It’s not an un-favorite – it’s a wonderful movie to knit and drink cocoa to a blustery November day – but it doesn’t wag my tail, either. My absolute favorite part is that delightful opening sequence, with the owners who look like their dogs, and Pongo and Perdita/Roger and Anita stumbling into love, but that’s only the first five minutes, and, like, if I need canine romantic antics, Lady and the Tramp is right there.5
I suspect one of the reasons that this movie never really clicked for me is its lack of female characters. Nothing made Little Jess tune out faster than a story without girls, and there aren’t really any of note in Dalmatians. Only one of the five named puppies, Penny, appears to be female, and unlike her brothers Patch, Lucky, and Rolly, she doesn’t even get a one-note personality quirk. (We only hear Freckles’s name and he or she is not specifically identified by a voice.) It’s worth noting that the most prominent female puppy in the animated series, Cadpig, comes from the original novel and not the movie.6
Moving onto the adults, and leaving Cruella aside for the moment – I like Anita and Perdita, but they’re utterly passive, following their mates without question and rarely expressing an opinion of their own. The only female character on the good guy side who shows a bit of spunk is Nanny, who is mostly relegated to a short comic scene where she futilely tries to keep Horace and Jasper out of the house. That leaves the cows who provide the puppies with milk. Aside from a brief comic role for a goose – and, again, Cruella – every single female character in the movie exists only as a romantic prospect for Pongo/Roger, or a source of mothering. In fact, evil is embodied in the terrifying figure of a woman with no romantic or maternal interest whatsoever – a monster, clearly.7 Meanwhile, heroism is entirely the province of male characters: decisive Pongo, of course, but also the ramshackle military establishment of Captain, the Corporal, and Tibs, and even the Collie and Labrador who help the Dalmatians. Little Jess does not see herself in this movie.
And again, I like Anita! In fact, I adore Roger and Anita – their courtship, their adorable marriage, their charming designs and voices.8 Roger in particular is tremendously appealing (because – sigh – there’s been a lot more work put into making him that way, instead of Anita’s generic prettiness) and probably the actual best Disney boyfriend. As John Grant puts it in his oft-cited (by me) Encyclopedia, “Roger gives the impression of scruffy tweediness, whether or not he happens to be wearing tweeds,” which is both hilarious and 100% true. They’re just swell.
And then there’s Cruella. On the surface, she has almost nothing in common with Maleficent – a hysterical caricature of a villain to Maleficent’s sinister, composed grandeur. However, they do share two things: First, they were both animated by Marc Davis, who has said that Cruella was way more fun than restrained, realistic figures like Aurora and Maleficent. And second, they are both truly some of Disney’s all-time greatest creations…who I just don’t care about very much. Intellectually I know that Cruella is a brilliant invention, a total scene-stealer, wonderfully voiced by Betty Lou Gerson, and genuinely terrifying at the climax when her eyes are all lit up with hellfire (especially when you remember she’s not trying to win a kingdom or whatever, she just really wants to kill some puppies)…and, like, whatever. Cool, I guess. Let’s go back to the beginning with the dogs matching their owners!
Cruella does, however, inspire one of the greatest Disney songs of all time, kicking off a decade’s worth of jazzy fun – though I’ve copped to not loving this era, there’s no denying that “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” are a lot more entertaining than “Hail to the Princess Aurora.” Dalmatians itself isn’t really a musical – there are only three songs, two justified by being written by songwriter Roger and one a tinny commercial jingle. But “Cruella De Vil” and the little bit we hear of “Dalmatian Plantation,” both written by Mel Leven, are great fun, even if the worth “plantation” has some uncomfortable associations.
Anyway, this new direction for the Disney studio was a rousing success, at least at first. Critics then and now adored the movie, and audience flocked to the original release as well as all subsequent re-releases. Dodie Smith, who wrote the original novel, was thrilled with the Disney treatment. In 1996 Disney remade it as a live action comedy, 101 Dalmatians,9 that despite being mostly terrible did very well. It sparked both a sequel, which I have never seen but which boasts a disproportionately stellar cast and a truly insane Wikipedia plot summary, and a huge demand for Dalmatian puppies in kid-having households, which became a problem when irresponsible breeders flooded the market with bad-tempered Dalmatians who had no business being around kids.10 There was also a similarly terrible animated series, as mentioned early, which ran for two seasons but exists in a separate and bizarre continuity from One Hundred and One Dalmatians and its official sequel, which I’ll cover next time. There was even a Broadway musical with live dogs, which I frankly can’t even picture.
Yes, this little movie has done very well for Disney. Good boy, Pongo…you old rascal.
- I expect The Little Mermaid to have a similar effect, and not just because it’s my forever favorite. ↩
- Though Disney pulled back on the ultra-widescreen they’d been using over the past couple of movies to woo viewers back to the theaters and away from the devil’s box, they do absolutely get their digs in at television with this movie, between the dopey programming and the zonked out way the puppies watch it, particularly Lucky. ↩
- CGI would give animators a similar gift vis-a-vis masses of animals in The Liong King’s stampede scene. ↩
- It’s probably also at least partially because we didn’t have a lot of them when I was growing up, since my Disney collection came from my step-grandparents, and the movies of the 60s and 70s were well after their time but before mine. ↩
- I have nowhere else to put this in the article so I’ll stick it here – my other favorite moment is when the soot-covered puppies are sneaking onto the van and the dripping snow reveals their white fur, rendering them temporarily black with white spots. So striking and clever! ↩
- I haven’t read the book since I was ten – anyone know if Cadpig’s a girl in it or not? ↩
- So here’s a pet theory: prior to 1960, the non-anthology Disney movies skewed slightly more towards female protagonists than male ones (5 to 4), and often with largely female supporting casts. As women’s lib kicked in, women retreated from central roles in Disney movies to become bland romantic objects and/or annoyances. (The Rescuers is an arguable exception, but, uh…well, we’ll get to that when we get to it.) Not until 1989 would we get another female lead, and only Home on the Range in 2004 can boast anything close to a mostly female cast. (And the Tink movies, but those aren’t from the same line.) Did backlash against feminism cause this dearth of female leads and ensembles on the screen? Ponder. Discuss. ↩
- As far as I’m concerned, they are Ralph and Sue Dibny: The Animated Series. ↩
- Or, as my little sister, who was completely obsessed with it, called it at the time, “101 Dalmatians Glenn Close.” ↩
- An angry Dalmatian is a terrifying thing, something the movie gets very right during the scene where Pongo and Perdita, all teeth and lean muscle, attack the very deserving Horace and Jasper. In the late 90s I once babysat for my neighbors, who had a sweet one-year-old boy…and a Dalmatian. This dog did not trust me one bit and would growl whenever I went near the kid, which, considering he was a baby, was pretty frequently. I had to quit because between the hysterical reports of kids everywhere being mauled by their own Dalmatians and this particular dog’s burning hatred for me, I was pretty sure I would lose an eye and several fingers if I ever went back. She was a beautiful dog, though. ↩