Disney Review: 101 Dalmatians (1961)

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Year of release: 1961
Running time: 79 minutes
Inspired by: “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith
Availability: last released on DVD in 2008
Sequels/spin-offs: live-action adaptation (1996), 101 Dalmatians: The Series (1997-1999), 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure (2003)

Plot: Newlyweds Roger and Anita Radcliffe are ecstatic when their dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, have a litter of 15 puppies. However, Anita’s old college friend, Cruella de Vil, wants the puppies for their spotted coats and hires two criminals, Horace and Jasper, to steal them. With help from dogs all across England, Pongo and Perdita track them down to an old mansion and discover that Cruella now has 99 puppies, all destined to be made into fur coats. The dogs flee back to their London home, pursued all the way by Cruella, Jasper and Horace. They finally shake them loose in a climactic car chase and they reunite with their owners, who welcome all 101 dalmatians into their lives.

The Heroes
Unsurprisingly for a film with 101 title characters, 101 Dalmatians has a lot of heroic characters. Not all of them leave much of an impression but each bring something a little unique to the table.

Pongo and Perdita are proven to be both loving parents and courageous heroes, travelling great lengths and battling overwhelming odds to rescue their children and take them back home. Unlike many Disney heroes, they are also shown to be less than kind when provoked, being positively terrifying when confronting Horace and Jasper in the mansion. Their snarling and violent attacks on the two criminals are similar to actions made by wild animals in other Disney movies but – given all that they’ve been through and the people they are attacking – their actions are justified.

Similarly, Anita and Roger are shown to be kind and generous owners, taking in every dalmatian that returns to their home and turning down a very generous financial offer from Cruella to avoid leaving Perdita heartbroken. Their first meeting early in the film is very sweet and their (generally unspoken) romance is one of Disney’s best. Unlike many animal-centric films, it is not really suggested that Anita and Roger are less intelligent than the animals they look after, instead being stuck in a position in which they can do nothing. Their housekeeper, Nanny, seems less on top of things, but is so kind and loving that you can’t help but love her back. Even Pongo admits that there’s “almost something canine about her” – high praise, indeed.

While the above characters are all very well portrayed, the puppies themselves are less interesting. Out of the central 15, the film really only focuses on three: Patch, Rolly and Lucky. I would struggle to even tell you the names of the other 12. This becomes even more of a problem when the other 84 puppies are introduced; although the collars help to identify which puppies belong to the original 15, the film pretty much gives up on following any of them, including the central three.

Finally, we have the dogs and other animals who live across England, helping Pongo and Perdita to find their children and escort them home. While almost all of them are entertaining and fun characters, the stand-outs are definitely Captain, Colonel and Sergeant Tibbs, who help free the puppies from Cruella’s mansion. Each of the trio is entertaining by themselves but it’s the dynamic between the characters that is especially good, if a little cliché.

Overall, 101 Dalmatians does an admirable job of juggling its many heroes, even if it means that we see very little of the actual puppies.

The Villains
Despite the ridiculous number of heroes, the character that everyone remembers best from this film is Cruella de Vil. From her outrageous sense of fashion to her loud and often out-of-control car, every bit of Cruella makes you want to run away and hide. Quite how she and Anita ever became friends is not really explained, though the way Anita acts around her it seems pretty clear that she no longer enjoys Cruella’s company (and it’s possible she never truly did). While not exactly being “truly evil”, Cruella’s wish to turn puppies into fur coats is repeatedly stated to be despicable and her theft of the Radcliffe’s puppies is most definitely a criminal act (though, notably, she did attempt to get hold of the puppies legally first).

But above all, it’s her larger-than-life personality that really leaves its mark. In almost every scene, she is either screaming her head off, holding some crazed expression or letting out a demeaning, cackling laugh. She also tends to leave a trail of green cigarette smoke, setting her apart from Roger, whose cigarettes and pipe always release plain, grey smoke. Bold, loud and mean as hell, it isn’t difficult to understand why Cruella is such a memorable villain.

Although Cruella is definitely not afraid of committing crimes, she leaves the actual dirty work to Jasper and Horace, two not-so-bright criminals. Horace – the short and round one – seems to be more timid than Jasper – the tall and thin one – who almost seems to relish the chance to cause the animals harm. Jasper is definitely the more streetwise of the two, with Horace shown to be a little more dimwitted. That said, Horace often correctly guesses what the dogs are up to, only for Jasper to shut him up saying it’s too far-fetched. Ultimately, they make for a funny and devious duo, who are the perfect counterbalance for the crazed Cruella.

The Story
Compared to many other Disney movies, 101 Dalmatians has quite a sizeable introduction before the actual dognapping plot begins. We see Pongo and Roger as “bachelors” and Roger and Anita meeting for the first time, getting married and living happily together. Time jumps about quite erratically during this first act but it helps establish a sense of the peaceful life at the Radcliffe household before Cruella enters and stirs things up. This first act is also narrated, in stark contrast to the rest of the film, by Pongo, providing some interesting insights to his life as a dog (including calling Roger his pet, rather than vice versa). While this is still interesting, it feels like a bit of a cheap way out – I’d much rather have seen Roger’s bachelor lifestyle unfold on-screen rather than have an info-dump at the beginning of the film.

Once the dognapping story actually gets rolling, the film does a good job of showing the extensive length of the family’s journey back home as well as how pressured they are to avoid Cruella and Jasper and Horace. It is a shame that we see so little of Anita and Roger in all of this – I think they are a fascinating couple but once Pongo and Perdita leave, we don’t see them again until the very final scene. Also, while still entertaining, there is very little substance to the actual plot of the film and little-to-no character development for any of the film’s cast. While this isn’t a huge problem, it does mean that the film does not stand up to repeat viewings very well.

The Visuals
This film has a rather unique visual style, carrying on the more angled character designs seen in Sleeping Beauty. This time, the backgrounds have also been stylised, boasting unusual colours but less detailing, which helps add to the feel of being in a cramped but contemporary London house. The film also has some brilliant crowd animation – a must when you can have up to 101 characters on screen at once. On the downside, there are numerous times when it is quite obvious that certain shots have been recycled from earlier in the film: the same clip of puppies hiding in a drawer is played twice during the final car chase and Roger and Pongo dance in the exact same way at both the puppies’ birth and their return at the end of the film.

Speaking of repetition, many characters from Lady and the Tramp make brief cameo appearances in the sequence where Pongo’s message is carried across London. Dogs from the pound can be seen in a pet shop window, Jack barks into a drainpipe and even Lady and Tramp themselves help pass the message along. It’s a nice bonus for the eagle-eyed viewer.

The Music
101 Dalmatians has only one actual song but it sure is a good one: Cruella de Vil. This jazzy song is written by Roger himself and later becomes a breakout hit, earning him “more money than he ever dreamed”. And quite right to, because it’s a really catchy song that sounds amazing both with lyrics and without – especially when Roger starts breaking out the trombone. Outside of musical numbers, the film’s score is decent but mostly forgettable – in fact, the only piece of music that really sticks in my mind is one that is reused in The Jungle Book, released six years later.

On its release, 101 Dalmatians was quite a success, especially when compared to some of the later Disney releases of the 1960s. More recently, it proved popular enough to have both a live-action remake and a direct-to-video sequel, as well as a Disney Channel TV show, which took story cues from the live-action film but used the character designs from this one. The live-action film was also popular enough to gain a sequel, 102 Dalmatians, in 2000.

When compiling its list of the 100 Greatest Villains, the American Film Institute ranked Cruella de Vil at number 38, as well as nominating the film itself for the Top 10 Animated Films and Top 100 Films lists. As for her song, Cruella de Vil has appeared on numerous Disney compilation albums – both the original and with cover versions.

101 Dalmatians does an admirable job of handling its very large cast and provides a great deal of entertainment but it is also rather basic and does not stand up to repeat viewings very well. The villains are fun and the art-style is interesting but even the iconic Cruella de Vil is not enough reason to keep coming back. Ultimately, it’s a good film, but not a great one.

I award this film 6 out of 10 jazzy breakout hits.

Next review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)

So, what do you think ?