Should I Watch..? '101 Dalmatians' (1961)
What's the big deal?
101 Dalmatians is an animated family film released in 1961 and is based on the 1956 Dodie Smith novel The Hundred And One Dalmatians. The seventeenth film from Disney's animation studios, the film's financial success rescued the studio from potential closure after the failure of Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman, the film stars the vocal talents of Rod Taylor, Cate Bauer, Betty Lou Gerson, Ben Wright and Lisa Davis. The film was a massive success with critics when it was first released and continues to be adored all these years later. The film earned an incredible at-the-time $215.8 million worldwide as well as considerable merchandise profits in the years since. It would be followed by a live-action remake in 1996 with Glenn Close memorably playing Cruella as well as a straight-to-DVD sequel in 2003.
What's it about?
Lonely songwriter Roger Radcliffe lives in his bachelor pad in London with his Dalmatian Pongo, who is getting increasingly frustrated living on his own. Determined to find him and Roger a partner, Pongo scans the nearby park for another Dalmatian and spots the beautiful Perdita and her owner Anita. Quickly dragging Roger out to the park, Pongo and Perdita fall in love along with their human owners and before long, wedding bells are ringing.
Some time later after nature has taken its course, Perdita and Pongo are the proud parents of a litter of fifteen Dalmatian puppies. That very night, they are visited by an old school friend of Anita's called Cruella De Vil who wishes to purchase the entire litter. Roger and Anita refuse to sell, however, so Cruella asks her bumbling associates Jasper and Horace to steal the puppies instead...
Betty Lou Gerson
Cruella De Vil
J. Pat O'Malley
Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date (UK)
25th July, 1961
Animation, Comedy, Family
What's to like?
Although the film's cost-cutting in the animation is unavoidable (which I'll come to in a minute), the film still has that Disney charm to it. With its mix of talking animals and catchy songs, the film cannot help but drag into its unusual world but the film's true star is its unforgettable antagonist. Cruella De Vil is a wonderfully evil creation, not just behaving badly but even looking different to every other character, clouded in green cigarette smoke and her larger-than-life look coming in complete contrast to the more realistic character and backdrop animation. Gerson's shrill vocal performance also pierces the film like an icy dagger, grabbing your attention from her first scene to the inevitable conclusion.
The film has a more traditionally slapstick finale as the rescue effort begins and Jasper and Horace bear the brunt of the animal's fury. This version of 101 Dalmatians is similar to the live-action version which appeals more to the younger demographic than perhaps some of Disney's other efforts. As a family film, it doesn't have anything too scary for younger viewers but offers an enjoyable and inoffensive adventure with literally hundreds of animated animals getting one up on stupid humans. What's not to like about that?
- Ub Iwerks, Disney's long-term collaborator, had developed a Xerox camera back in 1959 which transferred drawings by animators directly onto animation cels - making production cheaper and quicker. However, the camera did leave scratchy black outlines and lacked the quality of traditional hand-drawn animation that had been used up to that point. Disney himself initially disliked the film's look but after the success of the film, had a change of heart.
- Smith actually based the book on her real-life experience of her own Dalmatian having fifteen puppies, one of them still-born who was revived by her husband. Unlike the Radcliffes however, they sold most of theirs and kept just a few.
- Several characters from Lady And The Tramp make brief cameos during the Twilight Barking sequence - Jock emerges from his doghouse and barks into a drainpipe, Peg and Trusty the bulldog are seen in the window of a pet shop while Lady and Tramp are both briefly visible with other dogs at the end of the scene.
What's not to like?
OK, time to address the elephant in the room. Compared to the quality of animation in films like Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo and Fantasia, this film looks almost amateurish. The characters look ok because they remain hand-drawn but the backdrops lack the same clarity as before. Certain scenes even just resort to block-colouring whole sections without apparent due care and attention and for those of us brought up on Disney films, it makes this a hard film to like. It lacks the fluidity of earlier Disney films and almost feels Hanna-Barbera in terms of its visuals.
And I realise that I may be in the minority here but I prefer the live-action 101 Dalmatians. For me, real animals will always be cuter than cartoon ones (even if they don't talk, which renders much of the movie silent) and the performances of Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams as Jasper and Horace respectively are also first class. But where 101 Dalmatians tops it is with its heart and warmth. The film has a feel-good factor to it, meaning that Cruella's influence doesn't derail the film completely. And if it weren't for her memorable appearance here, would Glenn Close's Cruella have been anything like as good as it was?
Should I watch it?
Taken as a wholesome piece of family entertainment, there is nothing wrong with 101 Dalmatians as it will delight viewers young and old. However, this is not a classic Disney like the ones mentioned above - it may be fun but it lacks the sheer beauty of its earlier films and struggles to stretch the story out to feature-film length. It's impossible to ignore the technical limitations of the technology at the time but Gerson's barnstorming performance as Cruella makes the film an essential watch for Disney die-hards.
Great For: Disney fans, Dalmatian owners, Disney's accountants
Not So Great For: backdrop artists, fashionistas
What else should I watch?
Ever since 1937's Snow White And The Seven Dwarves, Disney had been the studio for animation and continues to produces high-quality films to this day. While they may have stepped away from the traditional fairy-tale adaptations that marked their earlier output, films like Moana and Wreck-It-Ralph have proved that more modern stories can be told just as well as fairy-tales such as the billion-dollar franchise-starter Frozen.
These days, however, Disney no longer has the monopoly of animation thanks to those CG-wizards over at Pixar. From the ground-breaking Toy Story to the sheer spectacle of Finding Nemo to the utterly sublime WALL·E, Pixar have become the new masters of the medium but face stiffer competition from the likes of DreamWorks Animation, Universal Animation Studios, Sony Pictures Animation and of course, Disney themselves.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox