“101 Dalmatians”, adapted from a children’s novel of the same name by Dodie Smith, is one of several movies that Disney has produced over the years about dogs, man’s intrepid best friend. After “Sleeping Beauty” failed to turn a profit, causing a major paradigm shift at Walt Disney Animation Studios, “101 Dalmatians” was the film that officially kicked off Disney’s dark age period, which would last for decades, while also being one of the highlights of that era. As the second major dog movie Disney has done, in some ways “101 Dalmatians” feels like a spiritual successor to “Lady And The Tramp“. A major aspect of this movie is the relationship between humans and canines, how they compliment each other, what it’s like living besides one another, how dogs like to think of humans as being their pets instead of it being the other way around.
But while “Lady and the Tramp” told a pretty general story about the circle of life – growing up, balancing family matters, and finding love – “101 Dalmatians” is a much more specific kind of adventure, about dogs getting wrapped up in a human crime and dogs pulling off a rescue mission. The inner-workings of canine society (which humans will never understand) plays a massive role in this film, since Pongo and Perdita rely heavily on the Twilight bark – a system dogs have devised to send messages to each other across long distances the way humans would with telegrams – giving the whole film the sense of being a classical adventure. Canine solidarity across long distances is perhaps the most consistent theme in the movie, since the dogs Pongo and Perdita encounter (along with their families) help them to find their children, let them in their own homes for shelter and protection, and help them return home to London. If it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers, our heroes almost certainly wouldn’t have survived.
The main protagonist of the film is a playful, loyal and protective British Dalmatian named Pongo. He and his owner, Roger, are initially a pair of bored bachelors who have hit a dead-end in their lives, so Pongo decides to set his owner up with a woman, and by chance he meets his own soulmate in the process. I really love Pongo. As the film’s narrator, he provides a lot of wry, sassy commentary about a dog’s view of the world, and he’s easily the most animated character in the movie (check out the faces he makes when he learns he has fifteen puppies). Pongo’s mate, Perdita, isn’t characterized as strongly as he is, but she is a very warm, nurturing, fretful and attentive canine, to her owner and her pups.
A pretty common Disney formula is for two characters to meet, fall in love, get married and have kids: the ideal outcome after they’ve overcome a series of challenges. Several classic Disney films follow that template, like “Bambi” or “Lady and the Tramp”. So I find it interesting that Pongo and Perdita have your standard Disney meet-cute in the first fifteen minutes and jump ahead to the babies phase, what should be their happily ever after, pretty quickly. Pongo and Perdita are parents for most of the movie, and the main conflict they face is the difficulties of parenthood, some humans threatening their family, and their love for their children being put to a grueling test. It’s a refreshing change from Disney’s usual formula for couples at the time. In the second half of the film, Pongo and Perdita race halfway across Britain, fight off crazed humans to rescue their pups, and then they have to play cat and mouse games with them: trying to outwit the dognappers and stay one step ahead of them. During the latter half of the film, the tension of their predicament is very thick and it’s always present, because the Dalmatians are always one wrong move away from being discovered and getting themselves and their children killed.
Pongo’s owner, Roger, is a musician, and a bit of loner, who’s married to his job. He’s very passionate about his profession, and he can easily get lost in his work, but he can also be very brash and blokish in his leisure time. By contrast, his wife, Anita, is a prim and proper lady. She’s a sensible, level-headed and pragmatic woman, who’s always quick to offer a differing opinion about how family matters should be handled. Roger and Anita’s different temperaments compliment each other well, whether it’s Roger encouraging Anita to loosen up and have more fun, or Anita keeping her husband’s rashness in check – and the two of them have some loving chemistry. I also enjoy Roger’s silly bromance with Pongo, and how it’s a quite bit stronger than your usual master / pet relationship between a man and his dog. Roger and Pongo lived together on their own for years, and as such they’re best friends, to the point where they can often guess what the other is thinking, and they sometimes even think in-sync.
Anita has an old schoolmate, Cruella De Vil, who really can’t stand Roger, and he feels exactly the same way about her. He puts up with her for Anita’s sake, but he also goes out of his way to annoy her whenever she visits (Pongo completely approves by the way). Roger harbors a healthy amount of fear of her, because she’s obviously completely nuts and abusive to everyone she encounters, but by the end of the first act, he grows to stand up to her, for the good of the family, and lines are drawn in the sand. Then she steals the family pets, and he grows to really despise her. Roger gets some of his own back, by writing a very unflattering song about Cruella that actually gets published and turns a profit. The Radcliffes don’t have to worry about legal issues, because Cruella has given them plenty of dirt on her that they can probably use to avoid being sued, and since they are the world’s biggest dog lovers, they wind up adopting eighty-four more Dalmatians by the film’s end.
While the Radcliffes are fun, likable heroes, “101 Dalmatians” is one of those films like “Peter Pan” where the villains are the real stars of the movie, especially Cruella De Vil. I love how campy and over-the-top her character is. Cruella De Vil is a vain heiress and a flamboyant fashionista who parties hard, indulges in all sorts of vices (smoking freely everywhere she goes), and has thrown herself wholeheartedly into mainstream 1960’s culture, wanting only the best clothes and the best artwork to show off her wealth, to the point of obsession. Cruella is rude, vivacious, demanding, opinionated, short-tempered and materialistic. Her voice actress chews all of the scenery, and she commands the screen every time she appears. Cruella wants the dalmatian pups so she can kill them and use all their fur coats to make an exquisite, creative, morbid fur coat, and she will not be denied it.
I’m glad this movie doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence by dragging out the obvious reveal that Cruella is behind the puppies’ theft. Everyone knows it has to be her, because she’s literally the only person with the motive, but what the Radcliffes lack is proof, since Cruella wants to keep her own hands clean for as long as possible. Cruella has a very violent, volatile and unstable temper, and she will lash out at people when they keep getting in her way, since she’s used to getting what she wants without any questions asked. She abuses her henchmen for much of the movie, to the point where they’re terrified of her. She obsessively hunts the Dalmatians down to find them and kill them, growing frustrated, until she flies into a bloodthirsty, murderous rage towards them (and anyone else in her warpath) during the climax. First, Cruella hired two men to kidnap some dogs for her. Then, she tried to straight-up murder some dude on the highway who did nothing over some dogs (and she tried several times to do him in, seeming pretty cool with committing murder). Cruella De Vil is one crazy-ass woman, and I love her for that.
In order to acquire her new line of spotted fur coats and keep the police off her trail, Cruella hires two low-rent thieves to help her with her fiendish plan: tall, gangly Jasper, and short, portly Horace, a pair of lazy, evil siblings. The two cockney ruffians are always fighting and bickering about something, because Jasper thinks he knows best as the older, supposedly wiser brother, despite Horace’s (well-founded) attempts to be the voice of reason during their schemes. They’re a funny, comedic duo, but they’re also sadistic, cruel and utterly amoral: Jasper seems to enjoy humiliating Nanny when they overpower her and make off with the pups, they have zero problems with abusing animals for their amusement, and they’re willing to bump off ninety-nine puppies for a generous sum of money (plus, two meddlesome parents for getting in their way).
As bumbling as they may be, Jasper and Horace do have a sinister edge to them when it comes to how far they’ll go to satisfy their greed (Jasper tries to help Cruella with her aforementioned murder attempt, it just backfires horribly), and I like how they change the mood of the film whenever they appear: the color palette always seem to become more grey, washed-out and uneasy during their scenes. As Cruella’s hired muscle, they wind up taking the brunt of the movie’s slapstick (at least, until the climax), whether they’re receiving punishment from the animals or Cruella herself. Like Roger, they have a healthy amount of fear of her, because she’s completely nuts, but they do try to be rebellious and stand up to their employer in little ways, with Jasper finally writing her off as a lost cause by the film’s end.
A considerable amount of screentime is devoted to the Colonel, a stuffy British sheepdog and an aging farm dog who runs the estate like it’s a military platoon, dishing out orders to his fellow farm animals to keep it running smoothly (it really is fun to look back on all these old Disney movies and realize just how much Disney liked the stuffy British guy character type, and since this story is set in Britain, it fits the setting for a change). The Colonel is a dry, skeptical, and absent-minded dog, but not an unreasonable authority figure; he’s a courageous, warm-hearted figure and he and his friends are responsible for discovering Jasper and Horace’s hideout in the countryside. The Colonel’s right-hand man and closest friend is Sergeant Tibbs, a farm cat who’s often put in charge of scouting and reconnaissance since he’s the most agile animal on the farm.
I’ve talked a lot about how courageous Pongo and Perdita are, journeying so far away from home to save their children, but I feel like Sergeant Tibbs is also the unsung hero of this movie, who doesn’t get mentioned that often. It’s his bravery and quick-thinking to outwit Jasper and Horace that keeps the pups alive long enough for back-up to come and save them all, especially since he can’t fight off two human men as easily as two large dogs can. Lastly, the Radcliffes have a housemaid in their employment, Nanny Cook, who nicely rounds out their unique family unit as a maternal figure to both the humans and their pets. Nanny is a hard worker, she’s fiercely loyal to the two heads of the household, and she’s dedicated to upholding their wishes: Jasper and Horace actually have a difficult time fighting her off when they break in, because she’s a surprisingly feisty woman for her age. She’s as much of a dog-lover as Roger and Anita, and she proudly considers the Dalmatians to be a temperament part of the family (her voice actress, Martha Wentworth, really taps into something raw when she conveys Nanny’s distress at realizing the puppies have stolen).
“101 Dalmatians” marked an important turning point for Disney. After the studio’s last big-budget project that they spent several years on, “Sleeping Beauty”, bombed at the box office, they decided their current method of creating animation was too expensive and they needed to find a way to cut costs and save time somewhere: so they started using modified xerox cameras to transfer drawings directly to animation cels, allowing them to skip the inking process. It was a great success, though it came with the side effect of the camera being unable to deviate from a thick, scratchy outline, creating all the razor sharp pencil lines the xerox era films are known for. Disney stuck with the process for the next three decades – creating the studio’s new, rough around the edges art style – allowing them to stay afloat with entertaining, serviceable if unambitious films until the Disney renaissance of the 1990’s.
Like “The Jungle Book“, “101 Dalmatians” feels exactly like it’s a product of the 1960’s and the jazzy hipster culture of the time, in a very charming way. The film has a very distinct art style that’s intentionally meant to emulate abstract art, which the movie shows off in a rather creative main title sequence – turning Dalmatian spots into ink stains, paintings, sheet music, type-writer paper and so much more. The scenes set in London all have very stylized, eccentric backgrounds, keeping with the abstract art theme, while the scenes in the gloomy British countryside are all much more minimalist and reserved; though there’s a certain beauty to be found in their simplicity, from the grassy, empty winter pastures to foreboding frozen rivers.
I also find it interesting that there’s a noticeable bump in quality for the character animation during the quietly tense, understated scene where Lucky almost dies and Pongo believes he’s just lost one of his pups right after they were born. Compared to later xerox films, stock animation isn’t reused as often in “101 Dalmatians” (save for that shot of Pongo and Perdita’s run cycle), though there are some odd, ineffective moments, like a shot of Pongo and Perdita jumping into a choppy river and trying to swim with the current, which does not look right. Interestingly, “101 Dalmatians” straddles the line between being a musical like most Disney films and being an ordinary, straightforward movie, without ever committing to being either, with only two songs composed by Roger (“Dalmatian Plantation” and the famously catchy villain song, “Cruella De Vil”) and a short jingle about Kanine Krunchies.
Apparently there were three other songs written by Mel Leven for Jasper, Horace and the Dalmatians (“Don’t Buy A Parrot From A Sailor”, “Cheerio, Goodbye, Toodle-Loo, Hip Hip!” and “March Of The Hundred And One”) that never made the final cut, which explains why the movie is only partially a musical. It’s probably for the best. The second half of the film manages to build up a pretty tense and suspenseful atmosphere (the way the movie manipulates it’s razor sharp color scheme to heighten the danger, not unlike “Bambi”, plays a major role in that success), so having our main characters burst into song while they’re on the run from people who want to kill them would probably just kill the vibe. The signature song of the film, “Cruella De Vil”, would later receive a pretty cover by Selena Gomez decades down the line. Like his work in “The Jungle Book”, George Bruns composes a score for the film that manages to thread a line between charming and laidback, and being moody and tense.
Upon rewatch, I really liked “101 Dalmatians”. I’d probably say it’s Disney second-best dog movie after “Lady and the Tramp”, and an entertaining way to kick off a new period in the studio’s library of films.
* “He was married to his work, writing songs. Songs about romance of all things, something he knew absolutely nothing about” Ouch, bro.
* “I say! Well, I do say! Now there’s a fancy breed. Hmm. Perhaps a little too fancy. Yes, much too fancy.” After a bit of thought, Pongo figured he’d better lower those standards.
* “At first you think Cruella is a devil, but after time has worn away the shock! You come to realize, you’ve seen those kind of eyes, watching you from underneath the rocks!”
* “Here, dog. Here, dog!” Yeah, you wanna lose that finger, Cruella?
* “Oh, I’d like a nice fur, but there are many other things…” “Sweet, simple Anita. I know, I know! This horrid little house is your dream castle… and poor Roger is your bold and fearless Sir Galahad! Hahaha!!!”
* “That witch. That devil woman. She wants our puppies. That’s all she’s after!” ““Don’t worry, Perdy. They’re on to her. Nothing’s going to happen to our puppies” “But, what does she want with them?! She can’t possibly love them! Oh, Pongo. I was so happy at first, but now I… Oh, I… I wish we weren’t having any”. Ouch. Poor Perdita.
* “Ohh! Steady, boy” Stiff upper lip, Roger! Stiff upper lip!
* “Why, you horrid man! You… you… All right. Keep the little beasts for all I care. Do as you like with them. Drown them! But, I warn you, Anita, we’re through. I’m through with all of you! I’ll get even. Just wait. You’ll be sorry, you fools! You… YOU IDIOTS!” Property damage ensues. I love Cruella.
* Pongo thinks Cruella is gone for good. Pongo, you sweet summer dog.
* On television, we get a brief glimpse of a dog named Thunderbolt, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of later in this franchise, and Patch in particular really seems to get into his show. I kind of like the fact that Disney decided to make a whole movie about two characters who both only got like three minutes of screentime in this film, and somehow they still managed to have chemistry.
* “That old dirty Dawson! The yellow-livered old skunk! I’d like to tear his gizzard out!” “Why, Patch, where did you ever hear such talk? Certainly not from your mother!”
* “Well, I’ve been thinking…” “You’ve been thinking?! Now, look here, Horace: I warned you about thinking!”
* “Now, be off with you, you big weasel!” “Now, you’ve been gone and done it. You’ve cut me to the quick, lady. Why, I wouldn’t stay here if you asked me. Not even for a cup of tea.”
* “Anita and her bashful Beethoven! Pipe and all! Oh, Roger, you are a fool!”
* “I don’t like it, Jasper! I-” “Oh, shut up, you idiot!” “WHAT??!!!!” “Oh, not you, miss!-”
* “”Yes, Cruella, it was quite a shock” “Is she calling to confess?!” Nah, bro, she’s crazy, but she’s not that crazy.
* Several dogs from “Lady and the Tramp” make cameos in this film, and they do the same in “Oliver and Company“, because Disney dogs are apparently immortal.
* “Puddles, sir?” “Fifteen spotted puddles stolen? Oh, balderdash!”
* “THE DE VIL PLACE?!” “Oh Pongo, it was her!” Of course it was. Would anyone else even give a damn about kidnapping your puppies?
* “Can’t we see the rest of the show first?” “Yeah, we want to see ‘What’s My Crime?‘” Spontaneous explosions ensue. I still love Cruella.
* I like how the Colonel just watches from the window as Pongo and Perdita maul Jasper and Horace. It’s like, he would step in, but they’ve both clearly got it covered.
* “Is everybody here? All of you?” “Twice that many, dad. Now’s there ninety-nine of us!” Your counting could use a little work, Lucky.
* “Watch your driving, you imbeciles! Do you wanna get nabbed by the police?!”
* “I’m tired and I’m hungry and my tail’s froze… and my nose is froze and my ears are froze. And my toes are froze.” Your grammar could use a little work too, Lucky.
* “Watch it! Crazy woman driver!” Heh, this really is a 60’s movie.
* You idiots! You fools! You imbeciles!” “Oh, shut up!” There is no way that skinny woman and her two goons survived a collision like that. They would be so dead, so dead.
* “101? Where did they all come from?” “Pongo, you old rascal!” Wait, is Roger implying Pongo and Perdita had all those extra puppies themselves? Man, Perdita wouldn’t be able to walk for months.
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