ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961)

  • Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman
  • Writers: Bill Peet, based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
  • Starring: Rod Taylor, Cate Bauer, Betty Lou Gerson, Ben Wright, Lisa Davis, Martha Wentworth, Frederick Warlock, J. Pat O’Malley, Thurl Ravenscroft, and David Frankham 
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The big movie release of this Memorial Day weekend is Cruella, starring Emma Stone, the latest fairly lame attempt by Disney to recycle old properties. I have no particular intention of seeing it, though I am skeptical of any movie that attempts to make sympathetic a character whose primary trait is puppy murder. I did enjoy the review of the movie in National Review, which I promise is the only time I will ever quote that publication in this space. It includes the following lines: “Cruella, a prequel/spinoff/origin story that ends where the original movie began, takes a somewhat different tack. It’s a tacky tack, and to be more specific, it’s a TikTok tacky tack, designed by hacks.”

That Cruella De Vil is likely to be the part of the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians movie people most remember is interesting, given that I’m honestly not sure she has ten total minutes of screentime and she mostly just yells “Imbeciles!” at her lackeys a bunch of times. Yet the original animated film is in fact important to movie history outside of the actual movie, a cute, fairly weightless bit of English-tinged mid-century escapism. Walt Disney was at peak crotchety old age, just prior to allegedly being cryogenically frozen in Cinderella’s Castle, and as hard as it might be to believe today, the Disney Studio was in financial trouble. The last several animated movies had lost money, and an embittered Disney was reported to be considering closing it down. But then One Hundred and One Dalmatians became a massive hit, the highest-grossing animated movie ever up to this time (it still is, adjusted for inflation), and set Disney on the path to becoming the world-bestriding entertainment behemoth it is today.

The movie is based on a very-English 1950s novel by Dodie Smith, and mostly departs from past Disney precedent by not quite being a musical. There are a couple of songs, but they are all “diagetic,” included under the pretense of one of the dogs’ people, Roger (Ben Wright), being a songwriter. The plot, as you are likely aware, involves Cruella (Betty Lou Gerson) kidnapping a bunch of Dalmatian puppies, for the purpose of turning their spotted fur into coats. The movie makes basically no effort to explain Cruella’s motivations, just that she “worships fur.” Its essential charm comes from the movie being told mostly from the point of view of the dogs. The lead Dalmatian parents, Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer), are the primary protagonists, and the movie starts with Pongo describing his “pet” in voiceover, only after a minute or so revealing that it is actually the dog talking about his human rather than the other way around. Some of the other main animal characters are the scruffy Colonel (J. Pat O’Malley) and his cat friend Captain Tibbs (David Frankham), who adhere to a very weird sort of British Empire “tally ho!” militarism, and hang out with a horse voiced by the great Thurl Ravenscroft.

Dalmatians is full of about seventy bazillion characters, many of whom are dogs that are in like one scene. It packs them into about 80 minutes, yet it somehow still feels like a languorously paced 80 minutes. At the start there’s what feels like fifteen minutes of Pongo lackadaisically narrating. At no point is anyone but Cruella and her two goons (who honestly wouldn’t be too far out of place in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) ever portrayed as anything other than a paragon of stiff-upper-lip mid-century Britain. In that way, strangely, it feels very much like the product of 1950s America that it is. It is meant to be idyllic and uncontroversial. Again, the villain is literally a dog murderer. It is a very black and white world. See what I did there?

The financial success of Dalmatians came as a surprise for what was seen at the time as a troubled production. Walt Disney had wanted to make the book into a movie for years before he actually started, but held off because animating all the different dogs was seen as prohibitively expensive. It became the first movie to use an advance in Xerox technology to repeat elements over and over, to avoid the animators having to draw all those Dalmatian spots over and over. Still Disney hated the animation style, which he thought too bland and “unartistic,” and vowed not to work with the Art Director, Ken Anderson, again. But the movie was a big hit, and all was forgiven. I actually like the animation style, it has this sort of Saul Bass Mad Men quality that seems appropriate.

That success has also led Disney down the road of long series of sequels and reboots, including numerous official re-releases and a 2003 direct-to-DVD sequel, as well as a live action remake starring Glenn Close as Cruella. The latter was successful enough to receive its own sequel, 102 Dalmatians. Now Disney returns again to the same material for a “prequel,” Cruella, featuring Stone as the younger version of the villain and Emma Thompson as her evil boss, or something. As I said, I have basically no desire to see the new movie, but I did find myself enjoying the original animated film more than I had probably expected. To be honest, it doesn’t take much for a cute dog movie without dramatic pretensions to grab my attention. So I would not say, in an artistic sense, that One Hundred and One Dalmatians is near the top of the Disney pantheon, but it remains a perfectly enjoyable movie 60 years later.

I feel compelled also to note that I have today for the first time learned about Dodie Smith’s original sequel novel to her The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is titled The Starlight Barking and came out after the original film in 1967. It sounds completely nuts and I kind of want to read it. All humans fall asleep, leaving dogs to figure out what’s wrong, while at same time discovering all dogs can suddenly fly. The plot also involves one of the Dalmatians becoming “Dog Prime Minister” and a visitation in Trafalgar Square from “Sirius, the Lord of the Dog Star.” Next month in our book club.

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