As is often the case in the earlier half of Disney Studio’s existence, the quest for artistic excellence without any consideration of cost often came back to bite them hard later. This happened early on where the artistically superb Pinocchio and Fantasia proved to be such financial flops as to ultimately cripple the studio for a good decade. History repeated itself where the amazing Sleeping Beauty pushed every boundary of traditional animation to its absolute limit, and yet found itself more-or-less being a financial failure at the box-office at the time of its initial release (subsequent re-releases would more than make it profitable). This time the commercial failure of that project proved so calamitous that there was open discussion whether Walt should just close up the animation division of the company and focus on live-action, television, and Disneyland where the real money was being made. Animation simply took too much time, cost too much money, and needed too much talent to make. This was the first time in the company’s history that it would envision a future without the animation division that put the company on the map, and it would certainly not be the last. But it was clear that for animation to continue, it would have to evolve.
Enter then the most unlikely saviour to the animation division: the humble Xerox machine. Ub Iwerks had spent several years modyfying a Xerox machine so that it could transfer the animator’s drawings, and with the advent of the animation department’s impending financial issues came at just the right time to be adopted for the next Disney feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It was a cheaper and faster way to animate; it was also a boon for the animators themselves as it allowed a much closer connection between their actual drawings and the finished product by cutting out the middle process of having others transfer their drawings. It was not without its detractors however as Walt reportedly hated the technology as a close comparison between Xerox technology and traditional hand-animation does reveal stark differences in detail and quality. Still the use of Xerox in animation singlehandedly saved Disney’s animation department – keeping it going through the oncoming so-called Bronze Age when the Studio found itself limping in the wilderness waiting for the next advance in animation to carry them on.
Of course despite the clear inferiority of Xerox animation, you would not be able to tell in One Hundred and One Dalmatians as it truly a case of the perfect story coming along at the perfect time to create an animation classic on par with Disney’s best.
Adapted from the 1956 Dodie Smith novel of the same name, the movie represented a clear departure from Disney in that it was telling a story that was very much a snapshot of contemporary life. It gave the animators free rein to immortalize, spoof, and highlight the intricacies of modern life, and they took the opportunity with full aplomb. They also took their artistic cues from art happening at the time as the movie’s aesthetic is angular, graphic, and bold – completely unlike anything ever done by Disney.
Nowhere is the riotous and contemporary energy of this movie most evident than in the opening credits of the movie where the power of the Xerox is put to full effect. With a propulsive jazz theme underlying the proceedings, the movie opens up to a riot of spots on a plethora of dalmatians – a shot that would have been impossible using traditional animation. From there the credits continue to display playful riffs on those dalmatian shots, using them as substitutes for everything from musical notes on sheet music to puffs of smoke from a tugboat. In between the credits display a very graphic art style, making it reminiscent of a Saul Bass credits sequence. Right from the get-go the movie indicates that it is going for something altogether different.
The introduction of our principal characters is also shockingly contemporary. Our hero Pongo lives with his human Roger not in a palatial palace or enchanted cottage, but rather in a dishevelled bachelor’s apartment where nary a clear place to sit can be found amongst Roger’s junk. Pongo looks out of the window utterly bored as he imagines a mate for Roger and by extension for him. His predicament is not a need for a great quest (although that will come later) but rather an escape from the malaise of modern life – a situation that has only become more relatable in the intervening decades.
When these two bachelors finally meet their partners in Anita and her dalmatian Perdita, they quickly form two of the most modern couples in Disney’s canon. Roger and Anita flirt openly with one another, find themselves disagreeing on Anita’s choice of friends (more on that in a moment), and genuinely seem to enjoy being in one another’s company. At one point he playfully runs his fingers up her back, and she responds exactly as every wife would in that situation. Meanwhile Pongo and Perdita are obviously loving toward one another; when she sarcastically announces her pregnancy, the best Pongo can muster is a big stupid grin. It is an all-too rare look at post-marital life in a Disney movie, and refreshingly it looks like all the major players still retain something of the personalities they had in our brief glimpse before they got hitched to each other; marriage is merely enhances who they already were.
Of course all this marital bliss gets shattered (and how!) by the appearance of the mercurial and instantly iconic Cruella De Vil. With the creation of Cruella animator Marc Davis goes 2-for-2 in crafting iconic Disney villains after Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. In stark contrast to Maleficent’s steely calm however, Cruella is a literal whirlwind of energy, and she is absolutely fantastic. Her coat-loving, chain-smoking, and generally shady ways kick start a story that was looking altogether too genteel and her diabolical plot to steal a bunch of dalmatian puppies to make a puppy-skin coat defies logic (how exactly was she going to get away in public with a dalmatian-coat after the police got wind of the kidnappings) but is viscerally macabre enough to give this tale its bite. She is also the recipient of a truly great song that embodies her and encapsulates so much of the feel of this movie.
Once the story becomes a rescue mission in which Pongo and Perdita rush across the English countryside to rescue their puppies (and eventually eighty-four more), it quickly becomes a series of set-pieces as the horde of dalmatians races to keep ahead of the film’s villainous trio. Side characters are quickly introduced and then discarded as various farm animals either take the one-hundred and one dogs in or directly thwart the humans. It isn’t the most challenging of sequences, but they are extremely fun to watch whether it is the twilight bark scene, the dalmatian’s plight through the snow, or any scene featuring the Colonel and Sergeant Tibbs (a truly underrated duo).
The movie turned out to be a box-office smash which did much to alleviate the pressures of the studio. It was also surprisingly contemporary in its storytelling whether portraying the intricacies of modern life and reflecting the aesthetic and stylistic flavours of the day. In Cruella De Vil you have a character who is the epitome of campy fun – an element that had previously been missing from the Disney canon. And the movie proved to be the perfect material to showcase new technology thereby paving the way for the animation department at Disney Studios to be saved. But in watching this film there is the distinct feeling that though the studio had struck lightning in a bottle with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, it was neither comfortable with this new development nor knew how to replicate it. Walt famously hates the look of this film because it pales in comparison with the lush animation of his previous films – a clear sign that for the first time in his tenure at the studio Walt’s mind was in the past rather than the future. Though One Hundred and One Dalmatians is an unqualified success and remains an underrated gem, one will also be able to find in this film the seeds for Disney Animation’s eventual sojourn in the wilderness once Walt was no longer there.
Rating: ★★★★½ (Note: This was my favourite Disney movie growing up so my ability to be objective with a rating may or may not be compromised.)
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