Sleeping Beauty was a monumental effort for Disney’s animation studio, costing six years and six million dollars. Its failure to make back its budget at the box office caused a crisis of confidence for Walt Disney. After so many financial losses, he started to wonder if it was time to close the studio and stick with live-action films, television, and Disneyland.
Thankfully, he was persuaded to greenlight one more movie that looked promising (and inexpensive). The result, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, made more money than any of Disney’s animated films yet. Besides being responsible for keeping the now ridiculously lucrative studio open, this movie remains highly entertaining for the whole family.
Pongo, Perdita, and Puppies
The movie focuses on the growth of a family. At first, Pongo the Dalmatian lives alone with “his pet,” a human songwriter named Roger. They soon meet their soulmates — Perdita and Anita, respectively — and eventually live together with a nanny. Perdita soon becomes the mother of fifteen puppies. The minions of Anita’s former schoolmate, the phenomenally villainous Cruella De Vil, kidnap the whole litter and add them to a collection of 84 others. Thanks to a large network of watchful dogs and Pongo and Perdita’s own bravery, every puppy comes home with them, and the family is even larger and happier.
A Brand New Look
One Hundred and One Dalmatians represents quite a few firsts for the Disney animated canon. It’s the first to clearly be set in the modern day (Lady and the Tramp take place around 1910). As a result, it’s also the first to feature cars and television. On a technical level, it’s the first in which the animators used the xerography process. This technique allowed them to use Xerox cameras to print their drawings directly onto animation cells instead of inking them on there. Xerography saved the studio a significant amount of time and effort — especially in animating all those spots on all those dogs (6,469,952 in all!).
A side effect of this process is that it gave the film a much less polished visual style than previous Disney films. The look of the characters was much sketchier, and they had pronounced black outlines. Thankfully, this did not hinder the animation, which excellently highlights the distinct mannerisms of each character. The artists also applied that aesthetic to their backgrounds, and it all fits with the movie’s urban environments and modern tone. Despite Walt Disney’s initial discomfort with the change in style, it stuck for a couple of decades.
If She Doesn’t Scare You …
Even though we have gushed over Cruella De Vil in her own spotlight blog, we can’t not talk about her here. Like Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, she doesn’t need any unusual powers to be a great antagonist (the movie’s contemporary setting wouldn’t allow for it anyway). All she needed was a goal so shocking that even Maleficent might balk: she kidnaps almost a hundred puppies so she can skin them. Her only motivation is her firm belief that they’d make a rather nice fur coat. Cruella may not command armies of darkness or plot the takeover of a kingdom, but she definitely earns her name (and her supremely funny theme song.)
While that alone is great, what truly propels her to Disney villain greatness is her titanic personality. Many people watch the movie today just to see her fly into rages, cackle at Anita’s unglamorous life and drive like she’s in a Fast and the Furious movie. Even when she’s not acting larger than life, she’s hilarious: note how she stubs her pipe on one of Anita’s offered cupcakes, and how she later deftly uses that same pipe to dial a number on a rotary phone. Marc Davis animated Cruella all by himself, and his passion for the character shows in every exaggerated expression and hammy mannerism. The Dalmatians may be the heroes, but Cruella is certainly the star.
Sounding the Twilight Bark
In fact, Cruella De Vil is so monstrous that the heroes can’t even hope to stop her plan alone. After her henchmen kidnap the puppies, Roger and Anita call the police, who quickly write her off as a suspect despite everything. Their helplessness forces Pongo and Perdita to use the Twilight Bark, a communication system where every dog within hearing distance relays a message by howling. Perdita initially dismisses it as a “gossip chain,” but every dog in London and its outer reaches treats their cry for help with great severity and spread it at any cost.
The long chain spreads for miles until it reaches a countryside farm near Cruella’s home (literally called Hell Hall). The animals at the farm, particularly an intrepid cat named Sgt. Tibbs, work to locate and then liberate every single puppy. While Pongo and Perdita lead the children on the long and arduous march home, various dogs offer them shelter from the freezing cold. These constant acts of generosity and compassion contrast with the greed and heartlessness of Cruella and her cronies.
This even extends to the actions of the humans. Roger wins Anita’s heart with his earnest offer of a soaked handkerchief after both tumbles into a pond. He later tries to revive one of Perdita’s puppies when it appears to be stillborn, with a minute of screentime devoted to his ultimately successful effort. Most importantly, Roger, Anita, and Nanny stand their ground against Cruella’s thundering, insisting that they will not give up one puppy to her. And of course, they willingly adopt an extra seven dozen puppies and pledge to get a countryside estate large enough for all of them. Their love wins out in the end.
Fun for Everyone
On top of being a lovely story about the power of good people working together, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is just a good time. It’s certainly one of Disney’s more entertaining and humorous movies, especially with a personality as big as Cruella De Vil in the mix. As the tagline said, it’s “one great big ONEderful motion picture.”
One Hundred and One Dalmatians Merchandise
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