Twice in Disney history, a film that did poorly at the box office forced Walt Disney to cut corners on his next film, resulting in a massively popular movie. In 1941, there was DUMBO followed the failure of FANTASIA. Twenty years later, in 1961, there was 101 DALMATIANS, which followed the financial disappointment of SLEEPING BEAUTY. Considering the exceedingly high quality of DUMBO and 101 DALMATIANS, Disney should have had box office bombs more often.
101 DALMATIANS heralded a new style in animation, a style that would define the final few films Walt Disney worked on before his death in 1966. In trying to find ways to save money, animation legend Ub Iwerks developed the photocopying the animators pencil drawing directly onto clear animation cels, thus bypassing the inking stage, in which the line drawings are traced by hand directly onto cels by other employees. During the hand-inking process, the rough line drawings were tidied up, but with the The "Xerox" process, much of the rough look and spontaneous energy of the original drawings was retained. This, combined with the angular design of many of the characters of 101 DALMATIANS, made for a Disney film that that looked as much like CINDERELLA or DUMBO as PSYCHO looked like GONE WITH THE WIND. Fans of the lush, romantic beauty of past films such as LADY AND THE TRAMP or SLEEPING BEAUTY may initially be put off, but 101 DALMATIANS is in its own way just as beautiful as any Disney classic and is more entertaining than several so-called "classic" Disney films. I may prefer the the look of, say, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PETER PAN, but 101 DALMATIANS is a far better film than either of those.
Based on a popular British novel by Dodie Smith, 101 DALMATIANS is the story of a young English couple whose new puppies are kidnapped by the evil Cruella De Vil, and the ensuing rescue of the pups by their parents Pongo and Perdita. The challenges in telling the story were considerable. As famed cartoon director Chuck Jones pointed out, most animators had trouble doing a story about one dog with spots - only Disney would attempt a film with one hundred and one! Fortunately, the Xerox process was perfect for this story. A small group of dogs could be copied and copied again in order to fill up the screen with dogs, while clever placement and camera movement kept the duplication from being noticeable. Because there were 101 dogs in the film, few, aside from Pongo and Perdita, were given any personality at all, though one little pup is fascinated by television and another named Lucky seems to be not lucky at all. (Or is that the same pup?). This is not a weakness, as the dogs are all cute enough that it is easy to be on their side when Cruella De Vil springs her evil scheme.
Speaking of Miss De Vil, she was a new kind of Disney villain. Not a witch, not a monster, not a pirate, but a rich, flighty woman with a fetish for fur. Designed and animated solely by Mark Davis, Cruella De Vil almost stands alone in the annals of Disney villainy. She has no excuse to be evil. No alligator bit her hand off like Captain Hook, she's not jealous of anyone's youth and beauty like The Queen from SNOW WHITE - she's just evil because she's evil, and, like Captain Hook, she's so over the top she nearly steals the picture.
Aside from Cruella, there were a few more modern touches and approaches new to Disney movies. The young couple, Roger and Anita, owners of 15 dalmatian pups (the rest were stolen by Cruella from elsewhere) express real affection for each other, have distinct personalities and were the most modern Disney lovers to date. The story itself pokes some fun at television, not just with a fake commercial for Kanine Krunchies but with a takeoff on the game show What's My Line? This was also the first Disney movie in a long time where songs took a back seat. Aside from the Kanine Krunchies jingle, there are only two songs, both of them sung by budding songwriter Roger. The better of the pair and one of the best Disney songs of all time is the bluesy "Cruella De Vil", which features the classic couplet "If she doesn't scare you/ no evil thing will."
Although Disney was not all that pleased with it - he was not fond of the new graphic style - he was in the minority. 101 DALMATIANS was extremely popular in its day and remains so today. Arguably the finest of the last four features, released from 1961 to 1970, in which Disney had any input, 101 DALMATIANS certainly has a stronger narrative than the much-loved THE JUNGLE BOOK and is clearly one of the major inspirations for the pleasant but comparatively weaker THE ARISTOCATS. ½ - JB
HOW MUCH IS THAT DOGGIE IN THE CAMEO?
In the "Twilight Bark" scene, in which neighborhood dogs relay messages from one end of town to the other with their howling and barking, you can spot several characters from LADY AND THE TRAMP, including Jock, Peg and Lady herself.