Disney’s 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians is both groundbreaking and highly entertaining, which no easy achievement — one not necessarily obvious from today’s perspective. Based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 book of the same name, the story follows two dogs and their human counterparts as they contend with a dognapping at the hands of the aptly named Cruella DeVil. The film marks a departure in terms of context for Disney, as it is wholly modern in tone and look, featuring a contemporary setting, with a less traditional animation style and a jazz score.
The story is narrated by Pongo, the dalmatian of bachelor songwriter Roger, who attempts to find a mate for his “pet”. This sets off an iconic sequence of dogs and owners with uncanny resemblances, a trick that is used throughout the film. It’s clever, amusing, and also an excellent way to set a playful tone, particularly so soon after the equally playful opening credits. Quickly, the plot is set in motion as Pongo and Roger head to the park and meet Perdita (dalmatian) and Anita (woman), fall in love (respectively), and become a family. It is when Perdita has a litter of 15 puppies that Cruella DeVil blows into the story, quickly shifting the narrative to one of adventure and suspense.
When it is revealed that Pongo and Perdita’s puppies are only part of Cruella’s larger litter, acquired solely for the purpose of turning them into fur coats, a real sense of fear and suspense is injected into the film. Cruella’s henchmen, Jasper and Horace, are dimwitted and lazy, yet also very afraid of her and follow all her orders without question. Nevertheless, they allow the 99 puppies to escape. Their journey home is filled with close calls, near misses, and the help of other animals, creating a genuinely tense series of events that eventually leads to their reunion with Roger and Anita and the adoption of all the other rescued dalmatian puppies.
Cruella is as perfect a villain as any Disney has ever produced. She’s immediately imposing, a sort of evil Auntie Mame presence who makes grand entrances and sweeping statements, completely stealing every scene. She’s drawn as wild-eyed and manic, with hair that’s half white and half black, instantly making an impression. Yet apart from her physical presence, she’s unapologetically horrible. The scene in which she orders the puppies killed is shockingly unfiltered, not only for the time, but even for contemporary sensibilities. She says, “Poison them, drown them, bash them in the head. You got any chloroform? I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, but do it and do it now!” It’s a moment that shouldn’t come as a surprise, as her intentions have been obvious all along, but hearing it voiced so plainly is still shocking.
Conversely, the film also includes many sweet moments that highlight the bond between humans and their pets, as well as the the bond between animals. Early on, when Perdita is giving birth to the litter, it appears as if one of the puppies hasn’t survived. In a beautifully understated moment, Roger, with Pongo anxiously waiting beside him, warms up the puppy and brings him back. It’s a tender and ultimately joyous moment that illustrates just how connected the characters are to one another. Similarly, there’s a scene in which the dogs are gathered around the television set watching their favorite program starring Thunderbolt, the hero German Shepherd. It’s a touching scene of familial happiness that also fleshes out the puppies’ personalities, particularly as they interact with their parents and one another.
Perhaps one of the film’s best sequences is known as “The Twilight Bark”, a telephone-like communication system between dogs. It begins when Pongo and Perdita learn that the puppies have been kidnapped and they immediately enlist the help of other dogs in the surrounding areas. As the dogs are shown barking and listening, passing on the message of the missing puppies, there are even cameos of the dogs from Lady and the Tramp, among the many shown. The genuine worry they exhibit is communicated through the terrific animation; there’s real feeling to the animals, and there’s never any question of their concern.
Interestingly, though Roger is a songwriter, there are not many songs in the film. There’s a wonderful jazz score by George Bruns that brings an energy and immediacy to the story, all the while creating a modern landscape and underscoring the more emotional scenes beautifully. As for traditional songs, there are only three, one of which is a jingle featured in a television commercial shown as the dogs are watching television. The other two are “Cruella DeVil” and “Dalmatian Plantation”, though it is the former that is the standout. Catchy, clever, and memorable, it serves as Cruella’s theme, and in some ways the theme of the film overall.
101 Dalmatians is a beautifully realized film that highlights the storytelling abilities of animation in the best ways possible, and in a thoroughly contemporary way that still feels modern today. A story filled with wonderful characterizations, genuine excitement, and a perfectly earned ending, the film is one of Disney’s best.
The release of the Diamond Edition Blu-ray contains all the original special features that were part of the earlier release, as well as a batch of all new extras. The featurettes include a great deal of behind-the-scenes information, both on the making of the film and the high stakes of its production. With regards to the latter, 101 Dalmatians was in danger of being the last animated Disney picture, as their previous release, Sleeping Beauty, had underperformed at the box office. Moreover, the animation involved would’ve been especially painstaking given the number of puppies required in so many group scenes. Each individual spot would’ve needed to be drawn by hand over ad over but the studio instituted the use of Xerox machines to aid in the process, and it was so successful that it would go on to be used in many films to come. Moreover, 101 Dalmatians was an instant hit and reaffirmed Walt Disney’s faith in animation. The Diamond Edition is an excellent release that perfectly illustrates how brilliant a film 101 Dalmatians is, with an array of bonus features that adds even further to its enjoyment.