Ranking the Disney Canon – 16: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

“As far as I could see, the old notion that a bachelor’s life was so… glamorous and carefree was all nonsense. It was downright dull.”  – Pongo

Man, it’s been so long, hasn’t it? Well, we’re back, and possibly better than ever. Let’s dive right back into Ranking the Disney Canon!

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, released in 1961 is notable for being the first film in the canon to use the process of xerography. Xerography is the process of using a Xerox camera to put pencil drawings from paper directly onto animation cells, thus eliminating the need for inking, saving time and money. This process was implemented in response to the expensive and detailed process that defined Sleeping Beauty, which ended up losing the studio money. The trade-off for using this cheaper process, however, was the fact that the animation no longer had the smooth lines of the ink. Rather, it now featured the rougher lines of the pencil. The studio would use the process on and off for the next couple years, and would completely disappear in the 198os.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the book of the same name, begins with Pongo, our lead dalmatian, forcing his “pet” Rodger, a struggling songwriter, to “accidentally” meet Anita, another human with a Dalmatian, a female named Perdita. Rodger and Anita get married, allowing Pongo and Perdita to have a litter of puppies. This captures the attention of Cruella De Vil, a former schoolmate of Anita’s who desperately wants to buy all of the puppies for herself. Rodger and Anita refuse, not trusting Cruella to treat the puppies well, so Cruella hires two goons, Horace and Jasper, to kidnap them instead. Pongo and Perdita, as well as dogs all across England, must race against time and save the one hundred and one Dalmatians that Cruella has taken in order to prevent them from becoming her newest fur coat.

STRENGTHS

The first thing that stands out to me about this film is how extremely well written it is across the board. The dialogue alone not only is able to capture the distinct British charm of the setting and characters, but it is also able to be extremely clever and extremely funny. I love the film’s ability to have both great sections of dialogue and great sections of physical comedy. It has the ability to have short moments of parody and longer moments of just pure fun. It is able to mix its moments of comedy and drama so well. In the modern age where Aladdin and Hercules and even Tangled feature a more in your face style of comedy, I think One Hundred and One Dalmatians gets lost as one of the classic Disney Comedies.

One of the prime examples of the fantastic script at hand is the first 8 minutes of the film, as Pongo narrates his life as a bachelor, and then goes through his entire thought process in finding and getting the attention of Anita and Perdita. What makes this sequence as good as it is is how well written Pongo’s thoughts are. They are so much fun and so british, and so eyepopingly perfect. I love the animation here as well. The way the camera moves in order to shot for shot convey the thought process that Pongo is going through, as well as Pongo’s expressions matching his thoughts, which create just another aspect of the scene to greatly admire. I think it’s one of the underrated sequences in Disney history, and it is such a strong start to the film.

Of course, a major part of what that makes that opening sequence so memorable is the character of Pongo. I just love how the character of Pongo is presented. His completely British, calm, intellectual demeanor is just so great, and make Pongo an incredibly fun character to watch. Rod Taylor (who would end up starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bird’s a couple years later) brings such a perfect voice into the role. It’s almost hypnotizing at times. All in all, it is just a great voice with a great character with a great script, and that equals fantastic.

The real star of the show here, and the first character that you probably think about when you think about this film, is Cruella De Vil. Man, Cruella De Vil. What can you say? She made the AFI’s 100 Heroes and Villains list! That could say enough on its own, but, in my usual style, we’ll take a closer look at what makes her great.

Cruella is so eccentric that you can’t help but to pay attention to her every moment she is one screen. She steals the show (and the puppies) against any character she is with. And so many things contribute to her success. For one thing, the voice is so distinctive, so condescending, and so evil, and, much like with Pongo, it adds so much to the character. Credit must be given to voice actress Betty Lou Gerson for bringing that voice into our minds. And then there is the animation by the legendary Marc Davis. The contradiction of the extremely large coat on top of the extremely skinny body, and how this is used in the animation, and Cruella’s habit of smoking, are just a few the many subtleties that Davis brings out in the design and the animation of the character. Davis has always done well with expressive characters (we have already seen his work in Peter Pan with Tinker Bell), and Cruella is among many of the highlights of his long and storied career.

To get a little sidetracked for a second, let’s move on to the music for a second. Though there is only one major song in the film, it is one of the most classic villain songs in all the Disney Canon. The song “Cruella De Vil” is, like much of the film, so much fun. The lyrics perfectly describe the character, and it’s a song you’ll be humming for at least a little bit after you watch to movie. What’s also great about it, in the context of the film, is the juxtaposition of what Cruella thinks of herself and how she is treating Anita, and Rodger going crazy on the song in the attic. It’s another extremely memorable song in the film, especially considering that this is our introduction to Cruella.

And to transition back to the side characters for a second, like many of the great Disney films before and after, the film is enhanced by the smaller roles of the side characters. I really enjoy Rodger and Anita. They work perfectly in their roles in the film, and I especially like the way they match up with their pets in personality. Rodger and Pongo are the intellectual ones, Anita and Perdita are the emotional ones.

(I do love the running gag throughout the film about all of the dogs looking and acting like their owners. It’s a great use of animation and actually turns out to be a humorous gag.)

Elsewhere, Horace and Jasper also fall into fun characters category. They make a great comedy duo, a great henchmen duo for Cruella to yell at, and a great obstacle for the puppies to overcome. And for a final note on the character front, the entire “Twilight Bark” sequence is full of great characters, but specifically the trio of The Colonel, Sgt. Tibbs, and Captain, who lie at the barn at the end of the Twilight Bark Trail. I just love the interaction between The Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs, falling in the classic, “leader who thinks he has the brains with the underling who actually has the brain” sense of comedy, and using it to the full effect for some great, entertaining humor. I do love Sgt. Tibbs on his own as well. He’s so smart, so nervous, and so catty. It’s certainly a different interpretation of the Disney Cat.

And while all these great characters are great in making humor and entertainment and fun, what they more importantly do is create characters that you love (or love to hate) and thus characters that you care for. If you remember my review of The Aristocats all the way back from the beginning of this list (and if you don’t, you can go back and reread it if you wish, and if you are reading this one before that one, what are you doing here? Start at the bottom!), one of the major problems with that film is that you don’t care for the main character or their journey. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the exact opposite of The Aristocats. It works with the same idea, pets separated from their owners and needing to return back, and makes it so much more entertaining through the use of humor and use of great character. If you want to see how much of a difference great characters can make to a film, watch the two films back to back. It is a stunning difference. I could go on and on about this and why this is, but I think I’ve made my point. Let’s move on.

I usually dislike xerography as a whole, as I prefer the smoother, inked lines, as they allow for much more beautiful animation and much more stylization, but One Hundred and One is one of the films where this style works, and one of the films where the stylization available through xerography is best shown. The London location of the film and the rougher, middle class locations really play into the style, and the character design also fits very well. And one of the best uses of xerography ever is when the Puppies and Sgt. Tibbs attempt to escape Jasper and Horace, just as they are seemingly caught in a corner. The background turns completely red, showing the sense of danger. It’s a striking scene, and extremely eyepoping and memorable.

For all the comedy the film has, I really enjoy the drama. Another one of the memorable scenes of the film is the scene where Perdita has her puppies (not shown on-screen, of course, for the sake of the children) and one of the seemingly doesn’t survive. The audience really feels the gravity of the emotion, both when the puppy seems to be dead and when Rodger nurses her back to health. It’s really a great dramatic moment. Another great moment is when the Puppies are being led by Pongo and Perdita through the snow. Again, the drama is really felt here. More proof of the greatness of the characters and the script.

Finally, and this is a minor point that goes back to the humor of the film, I simple ADORE the parodies of television that are presented throughout the film. The Thunderbolt program is a perfect parody of the types of shows that Walt Disney himself would make for his Disneyland and Wonderful World of Color television shows, as well as other nighttime entertainment. The Kanine Krunchies commercial is a great send up to the commercials of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But the highlight, at least to me, is What’s My Crime, the game show that Horace and Jasper watch. If you know anything about 1950s and 1960s Game shows, and have any familiarity with shows such as What’s My Line, which I do, then the parody is one of the sneakiest funny things in the film.

WEAKNESSES

I debated for a long time whether or not this was a real weakness or not, but I decided that it barely is. For a film called One Hundred and One Dalmatians, most of the Dalmatians don’t have much of a presence. I wondered for a bit if the film needed more of the puppies, since the film works so well without them, but ultimately, they should have been in there more. We could have gotten one or two scenes toward the end of the film that explored the Puppies and their feelings and personalities. It’s not a huge blow, but it could have enhanced the emotion and the humor to another level.

That leads into my only other issue with the film: The scene where the crew finally gets some rest in the barn. I understand the purpose of this scene, to show that all of the Dalmatians found rest, but I feel that this is the one scene in the film that is a wasted opportunity. This could have been used to explore Pongo and Perdita’s feelings on the large number of puppies, it could have been used for some more drama, some more comedy, or a sequence that explores the puppies more. I don’t know. This scene is the one scene in the film that feels flat to me. Though it still feels somehow necessary.

There are other things I could mention, but they are very, very minor. In fact, you could argue the above two points are minor, as they really do nothing to break the film. That’s the point we are getting to. What are we going to do when I run out of films with weaknesses worth mentioning? Don’t worry. I have a plan.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best song is, bar none, the only major song in the film, Cruella De Vil. It may be the only one, but it’s amazing nonetheless. Plus, it’s got the introduction to Cruella. All in all, just fantastic and classic.

The best scene is the opening 8 minutes. I described it above. No need to describe it again.

CLOSING COMMENTS

What a great film to return to the blog with. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is classic Disney Comedy, with great writing, characters, drama, and animation. And trust me, this film was very hard to rank, because it is so good! It jumped all around the next couple spots, because these films are so close in quality. What is next on our list? Stay tuned to find out! Man, It’s good to be back!

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One thought on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 16: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

  1. For what ‘The Aristocats’ failed to do upon it’s release, ‘One Hundred & One Dalmations’ did it justice. Even though there’s not much to explore with the actual ‘Hundred & One pups’ and the opportunities that weren’t fully explored with this film, it’s that classic film that families can really get into. You can really feel the sense of urgency to see the parents reunite with their children, racing against the clock before Cruella can put her sinister plan into action. Though while I find Cruella’s motives questionable, as most Disney villains felt they had a reason for being evil, her pursuit for the perfect coat (Add to some of her notable quirks) makes me understand why she was ranked among the greatest villains in film history (Though it can’t be helped she’s made the butt of jokes nowadays). And it’s a shame that this film is not as appreciated as most films, even though the film would receive a ‘modern’ approach to the story featuring Glenn Close adding to the role of the most outrageous villain in Disney history. But having seen this film so many times in my youth, it’s definitely a movie with enough charm to keep audiences in their seats.

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