MOVIE REVIEW | 101 Dalmatians (1961)

101 Dalmations original poster
I’ve seen very few Disney animated classics.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is the only one made before I was born that I know for a fact I’ve seen all the way through.  I might have seen all of Pinocchio, but I can’t be positive.  So today I started my classic Disney education with the randomly chosen 101 Dalmatians.

Pongo (Rod Taylor) is a London Dalmatian.  His owner, or as Pongo refers to him, his pet, is Roger (Ben Wright), a struggling musician and songwriter who is single and lonely.  When Pongo spots Perdita (Cate Bauer), a female Dalmatioan he thinks is a bit of alright, being walked by Anita (Lisa Davis), he decides the four of them make two great couples.  Soon enough, Roger and Anita are married, and Pongo and Perdita pop out a litter of 15 puppies.

Cue Cruella De Vil, Anita’s former school friend and current neighbourhood bitch.  She has an uncomfortably intense interest in the puppies and is determined to acquire them.  When Roger suspects the worse and refuses to sell them, De Vil shows the full extent of her obsession and the lengths she’s willing to go to.

The first thing that struck me about 101 Dalmatians was its look.  I wouldn’t say it looks cheap or rough, but compared to other Disney movies, it definitely looks very raw.  This rawness distracted me enough that I had to check the IMDB while watching, and stumbled across this little nugget…

“Due to the commercial failure of Sleeping Beauty, production costs needed to be cut. As a result, this was the first Disney feature film to use photocopying technology, which made an animated film with this much visual complexity possible”.

But even then, when cutting costs, Disney animators still manage to turn it into a certain kind of charm, instead of cheap and nasty.

The second thing that struck me was the introduction of Cruella De Vil.  As she bursts through Roger and Anita’s front door, smoke is pouring out of the end of her cigarette.  But not normal smoke.  It’s green and toxic.  Even worse, it spews from her mouth, directly into the face of whoever’s unlucky enough to be the target of her conversation.  That seems like a totally expected shorthand for evil in 2014, but according to this documentary I saw once, called Mad Men, the only things more popular than smocking back then were suits, scotch and misogyny.

The third thing that struck me was the almost complete lack of songs.  It’s a Disney movie, the main human heroes’ occupation is a musician and songwriter.  You’d think 101 Dalmatians would be wall to wall songs.  But all we get are two half assed numbers.  One tossed off ditty with only two or three lines of lyrics about Cruella.  And a second tossed of piece of fluff at the very end about a Dalmatian foundation.  That’s it.

The fourth thing that struck me…  And this is the big one…  There’s a moment where this movie deals with the idea of one of the puppies being still born.  That is some dark shit, right there.  People are always banging on about Bambi’s mother copping it as a shocking Disney moment, why have I never heard about the temporarily dead puppy in this thing?

I can’t imagine anyone saw the success of 101 Dalmatians as a surprise.  It’s a shit load of adorable cartoon puppies, voiced by adorable real life little kid voices.  It’s a simple, uplifting story of good conquering evil.  And it’s a breezy, kid friendly 80 minutes that hits all the right emotional beats at all the right times.  As someone who has seen way too few animated Disney classics, I really liked it, but I also have a feeling it’s pretty minor compared to some of the other titles in the catalogue I plan on watching in the near future.

101 Dalmatians
Directed By – Clyde Geronimi , Hamilton Luske , Wolfgang Reitherman
Written By – Bill Peet 

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