Disney By The Numbers: 101 Dalmatians (1961)

One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.

This is Disney By The Numbers

101dalmatians


 

It’s not secret that Sleeping Beauty was an artistic highpoint for Walt Disney Animation. But it was also a costly failure. One would expect the movie that followed to be a dud, or a bizarre trainwreck. Instead, in the wake of Sleeping Beauty‘s disappointing box office, Disney turned out yet another classic… albeit one altogether different. Disney is known for its fairytales, but when you actually look at the filmography of the company, those films don’t comprise the majority. And those non-fairytale films? Well, they can be every bit as classic.  101 Dalmatians is proof of that.

We have 100 numbers to demonstrate that. Sorry, we’re one short.

 

Storytelling

  • Theme 1.5
  • Tightness of Script 3
  • Dialogue 2
  • Use of Comedy 3
  • Use of Drama 3

One of the reasons Disney experienced a slump, after the initial run of Golden Age Movies, was because much of its talent pool had been shipped off to fight in World War II. Walt lost a lot of his key animators and story men and that affected the quality of the product he could develop. After the war a lot of those veterans (both of the war and animation) returned and things slowly returned to normal.

What does this have to do with the story of 101 Dalmatians?

More than you would think, perhaps. While I haven’t found any sources referencing WW II as an inspiration, there are parts of the film that feel like they were lifted from other movies such as The Great Escape. Pongo, Perdita and the puppies escape the clutches of Cruella DeVil, only to trek across the countryside.  The only thing keeping them from being recaptured is the kindness of other dogs that seem to serve the same role as a French Resistance might.

It seems a bit bizarre but it fits, and strangely enough, works. The way the other dogs react to the situation, the way everything is played completely seriously, all lends an air of gravity to what would be somewhat ridiculous. We’re not being asked to buy two dogs having a romantic italian dinner. We’re expected to take seriously the plight of 101 Dalmatians trekking across the English countryside disguised as labradors with a crazy woman cosplaying as Two-Face bent on skinning them.

101dalmatianstwoface
This time, we’ll need 102!

Keeping a straight face is somewhat critical for it to work.

Total: 12.5

Music

  • Lyrics 4
  • Score 3
  • Number of Songs 1
  • Notoriety of Songs 4

The best Disney films typically roll out musical hit after musical hit. Snow White has eleven songs, most of them memorable,  and The Little Mermaid has no less than  eight musical numbers and every one of them is iconic. When stacked up against films like that, 101 Dalmatians seems a bit… sparse. Deserted even.

So why the high score?

Well for starters, there is the actual score. There’s a jazzy, light quality to it, not present in previous Disney films. It’s wholly unique and entertaining.

But by far the reason this category scored so well is for “Cruella De Vil”. This single song is instantly iconic and catchy. In fact, there’s only one other song to judge and it’s as forgettable as it is brief, like that time a ‘Gap’ ad for khaki pants convinced an entire generation to get into swing music or Universal Studios Dark Universe.

101dalmatiansdarkuniverse
Pro-tip: Don’t try and build a film franchise on Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp, both those ships sailed years ago.

So the pleasant but unmemorable “Dalmatian Plantation” aside, if 101 Dalmatians had done literally nothing else right, it still would have that one iconic hit to bouy it up. That’s the power of song… a lesson Disney won’t always understand.

Total: 12

Animation

  • Quality of Animation 2
  • Use Of Color 1.5
  • House Style 3
  • Character Design 3
  • Breaks New Ground 3

To properly convey 101 Dalmatians score in animation, we’re going to have to go into a bit of the history of animation and the technical aspects therein. Now, I know that sounds a bit boring but I promise you that it’s interesting. It involves bad blood, hurt feelings, reconciliation… xerox machines… all the things you need for a great fun time!

cb53b71

As I mentioned in the Sleeping Beauty Review, that movie is unequivocally a work of art, meshing all the craft and skills Disney and his animation team had built… it was also a massive failure. Largely due to the fact that in order to produce animation of that quality meant spending a company into the red. For the first time since Disneyland had opened in 1955, Disney posted a loss the year Sleeping Beauty came out.

The loss was devastating to Walt, and he considered shuttering the entire animation department. By this point, Disney made far more money on Disneyland and its live action features which they produced for a fraction of what high quality animation cost.

But Walt understood, as Michael Eisner and Bob Iger would decades later: the Disney Company has many facets, but cartoons are its lifeblood. Everything else it does are money makers, sure, but they don’t impact pop culture as strongly or as enduringly as their animated offerings. So he instructed his production team to find a way to make animation more economically viable.

The solution initially came from Ub Iwerks. Who’s Ub Iwerks? Nobody important really. He only co-created Mickey Mouse. Ub had long ago put aside his pencil and become one Disney’s lead special effects men. Iwerks came up with the idea of using a technique called xerographry  to essentially skip the inking process through the use of photocopying the cells. He actually first employed the process in certain scenes of Sleeping Beauty before Ken Anderson, another Disney animator, applied it to the entirety of 101 Dalmatians.

While xerography greatly reduced the cost of producing animated features, it also reduced some of the quality. The clean lines that Disney was known for didn’t translate through the process so the movies made with this technique all take on a rougher appearance.

In 101 Dalmatians, this look actually works. The characters have a stylized design that lend themselves to almost looking like an illustration from a children’s book. So while the animation isn’t quite on the same level as what came before, it holds its own for being unique.

And that’s the end of that story.

I promise. Nothing else to see here. The end. The ever ending story. Nothing else to tell regarding this particular story.

101dalmatianspinocchio

 

 

Total: 12.5

Love Story

  • Character Interaction 3
  • Importance To Overall Plot 3
  • Complexity 1
  • Pulls At Heartstrings 1
  • Overcomes Obstacles 3

Remember how the first time we ever had the focused romantic love story in a Disney movie, it was about two dogs? Well guess what, here we are with a romantic love story  and it’s, again, between two dogs.

And, spoiler alert, the next time this is going to happen…

101dalmatianscanine
Ooh-de-lolly!

Not sure what Disney’s deal is with canines, but apparently they make great love stories.

But right now we’re going to talk about Pongo and Perdita. They’re great, they’re a loving couple that completely supports each other. And while Perdita leans on Pongo when she’s worried, she’s also right there with him on the adventure. When their kids are in danger both parents spring into action.

101dalmatiansattack
Literally

In addition to being Disney’s first action couple, Pongo and Perdita also get to share some genuine moments of love, caring, and humor together. They’re pretty much awesome.

 

Total: 11

Hero

  • Sidekick 0
  • Charm 2
  • Goodness 2
  • Emotional Transformation 1
  • Comedy 1

Oh, well… you see this is another situation where we pretty much consider the movie to have co-leads. Pongo and Perdita. The problem here is… well, I just spent an entire section talking about how awesome Pongo and Perdita are. So… Not sure if there’s a lot more to say here.

Though, in keeping with the theme of this being a WWII prison escape movie, they actually get some of the more interesting action/drama scenes. Pongo gets a moment where he’s practically starving to death during their flight from Cruella. It’s also fun to see them use their wits and roll around in soot to pretend to be Labradors. So, it is refreshing to see Disney Heroes being genuinely heroic and impressive.

Total: 6

Villain

  • Evilness 2.5
  • Comedy 1.5
  • Sophistication 2.5
  • Henchmen 1
  • Poses A Threat 2

One of the hallmarks of great Disney villains is their design. Disney Villains take full advantage of the cartoon medium and possess truly outlandish looks. A good indicator of that is the fact that you can take the most iconic Disney Villains, simply show their silhouette, and most people would be able to identify them. What I’m getting at here is…

101dalmatianscruella
To see her is to take a sudden chill

Yet again we have an amazing Disney Villain. But one entirely different from the previous villainous MVP, Maleficent. While Maleficent radiated hate and power. Cruella? Well emits an aura of madness and danger. Maleficent’s motives are to destroy that kingdom for the sake of petty revenge.

Cruella doesn’t have lofty ambitions, she just wants to wear very specific, horrific, fashionable clothing. It’s nuts and evil and incredibly entertaining.

And speaking of incredible, somewhere out there, there’s an alternate universe where Disney has gotten off its lazy butt and made the most epic movie crossover ever conceived…

Cruella De Vil vs Edna Mode.

101dalmatiansedna
“Tell me Darling, do you bleed?”

Total: 9.5

Supporting Characters

  • Comedy 2.5
  • Inventiveness 2.5
  • Clear Help Or Hindrance 2.5
  • Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2.5

This one’s big. Most Disney movies have 3, maybe four real supporting characters. But this one? It has over 100. Now to be fair, the vast majority of them are puppies without names, personality, or dialogue, so it’s lucky that the characters that do really pop.

Pongo and Perdita of course have their puppies, who more or less break down into various stereotypes, there’s the fat one, the spunky one, the couch potato, the girl, the sporty one, the cute one, the fancy one, the scary one… wait… sorry, I’m getting them confused with Britains other iconic high fashion supergroup…

101dalmatiansspice

But once we get past the Pongos we also have their dog and farm animal allies that act like members of the resistance, helping to guide the dogs home, shelter them and even act in crucial roles to initiate their escape. Especially Sergeant Tibbs, I’m not much of a cat person, but this cat knows where its at.

And that’s pretty much it, pretty sure I’m not forgetting anyone…

101dalmatiansroger2

 

Oh, right. The humans. Now typically in Disney’s animal based films, humans don’t matter much. John Dear and Darling are barely seen in Lady And The Tramp, the humans running the circus are pests in Dumbo and Man is basically a killer shark waiting to smell blood in the meadow before going in for the kill in Bambi.

But in this movie, the human characters are actually quite charming. Roger and Anita are an adorable couple who genuinely love each other and their dogs and Nanny is a firecracker that is probably a descendant of Merryweather. If she’d had a magic wand, she would have murdered the crap out of Cruella’s henchmen.

Total: 10

Disney Magic and Legacy

  • Theme Park Presence 0.5
  • Timelessness 2
  • Impact On Culture 1
  • Scope of Audience 2
  • Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?)1.5

For such a conceptually weird movie… a slice of life story that turns into an action, escape flick with echoes of WWII, all centering around spotted dogs escaping the fur industry… it’s kind of amazing how much longevity it has.

Cruella De Vil ranks high among Disney villains, and is the only character from this movie that can be found in the Parks. Which feels like a missed opportunity because how awesome would a meet and greet be where you just met a couple of trained Dalmatians named Pongo and Perdita?

101 Dalmatians is also one of the first movies Disney remade, back when that was a novel concept. The live action film is alright but Glenn Close’s Cruella is pretty much perfect.

101dalmatiansglenclose
Once upon a time, Disney knew how to put their villains in live action

So even though it doesn’t have the typical magic and pixie dust of your standard Disney movie, it still manages to hold its own, and play with the big boys.

 

Total: 7


Grand Total 80.5

 

And that’s pretty much it. Great movie, not the same as Sleeping Beauty and an all around classic, even if it feels like a weird mishmash of movies. Seems like I’ve delivered on every bit of commentary I promised. So we’re basically done here.
101dalmatiansgenie

Alright, alright.

In the animation section I mentioned that part of the history of this movie involved bad blood and reconciliation but I never told you how that played into the story.

You see, 101 Dalmatians was a hit and made a lot of money for the studio. But there was one person that wasn’t happy with it. That was Walt Disney himself. He strongly disliked the xerography technique as he felt it compromised the quality of his animated features. He was so upset that he vowed that Ken Anderson would never oversee the production of another animated feature.

A few short years later, Walt found Ken and let him know that 101 Dalmatians had indeed been a good movie. It was also the last time the two saw each other because Walt passed away a few weeks afterward.

Now, that may seem like a downer, but keep in mind that 101 Dalmatians saved Walt Disney Animation. Another flop like Sleeping Beauty would surely have convinced even Walt to close it down. Because of 101 Dalmatians, we got all the Disney movies that followed, and that is a wonderful note to go out on if I do say so myself.

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