Thursday, December 27, 2012

Spot-On Disney Fun: “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”

Disney’s Seventeenth Animated Feature – 1961
This movie is a treat, tip to tail. Beginning with the jazzy, modern-art inspired opening credits, you’ll realize you’re in for something special. This little movie-before-the-movie features dancing dalmation spots that hop onto a musical stave and animator’s sketches that spring to life. Work-in-progress sketches of dalmations run in a row, reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies of horses. And One Hundred and One Dalmatians makes any number of references to famous films, just as it has inspired many imitators. Even future Disney features (I’m looking at you, Aristocats) will try to recapture its magic. Any why shouldn’t they? This is one of those rare films that succeeds on every level: story, characterizations, animation, pacing, and message.

I’d put One Hundred and One Dalmations among the best of the best of the Disney catalog. And it’s thankfully free of veiled stereotypes and implicit racism. In fact, its anti fur message is more deeply felt today than in its year of production. Back then, every woman wanted a fur coat, as witnessed in (among many other sources) the Doris Day/Cary Grant comedy of 1962, That Touch of Mink. Today, fur coats seem old hat. You can view the wonderful opening credit sequence here:

Set in London, the story opens with the voice of Rod Taylor as the lead character; but Taylor’s not the amiable bachelor songwriter Roger; Rod Taylor gives voice to dalmation Pongo. Pongo refers to Roger (voiced by Ben Wright) as his “pet.” Pongo gazes out the window and laments his (and Roger’s) lonely life, “My old pet needs someone.” He watches a parade of women and their pet dogs stroll by, then “spots” the lovely dalmation Perdita (voiced by Cate Bauer) and her equally lovely pet, Anita (voiced by Lisa Davis). This handling of the dog’s personalities owes a lot to Lady and the Tramp, with the story set in the secret world of dogs.

Cruella makes her grand entrance.
Pongo cleverly orchestrates the first meeting of Roger and Anita and we quickly jump in time to their wedding day, as Pongo and Perdita, just outside the wedding chapel, make their own pledge of love and commitment. Both couples are happily ensconced in their little world, Perdita expecting puppies, when Anita’s old school chum comes for a visit. The thought of a visit from the egomaniacal and downright scary Cruella DeVil inspires Roger to improvise a song about her. And Cruella enters with a bang. She’s a memorable villainess for the ages, superbly voiced by Betty Lou Gerson. She’s practically grey with palor, skinny, bizarrely “fashionable” in a huge fur coat; she’s affected and fills the house with odd green smoke from her long cigarette holder (though nice-guy Roger’s pipe-smoking is not presented as noxious). She exclaims how she’s mad about fur and she’s patronizing, even obnoxious to Anita as she discusses her excitement at the soon-to-be-born pups. When Anita reminds her the pups are still three weeks away, Cruella unceremoniously cuts her visit short.

Sweet Nanny is Cruella's opposite.
Sweet-as-pie Nanny helps in the delivery of Perdita’s fifteen pups. For a moment, they think they may have lost one of the pups, but Roger manages to massage the puppy back to life, earning it the name “Lucky.” Cruella returns and offers to buy the entire litter at any price, but Roger is adamant that the puppies are not for sale. Cruella has a tantrum and exits to the sound of her thunderous threats and insults. It doesn’t take long before Cruella hires a pair of thugs—Jasper and Horace—who seem to be on loan from the Home Alone franchise. They’re all Cockney rhyming slang as they con their way into the house while Roger and Anita have the “grown-up” dogs out for walkies. Poor Nanny tries to eject the pair of thugs, only to realize that they’ve made away with the puppies. Even a Scotland Yard investigation doesn’t turn up a clue, so Pongo and Perdita take matters into their own hands (or paws). They spread the word through dogs' secret communication system, the “twilight bark.” Soon news spreads throughout London as the city fills with the sound of barking dogs. The barking travels out to the countryside, an all points bulletin to locate the pups.

Just three of Perdita's fifteen.
Of course, the pups are being held at Cruella’s country manse, aptly named Hell Hall. But it’s not just Pongo’s fifteen who are prisoners, but a full ninety-nine pups, all the others purchased from pet shops, waiting to be turned into skins by Jasper and Horace. This is when the film resembles The Great Escape, as farm animals, informed by the twilight bark, spring into action to rescue the pups. But they don’t just rescue the fifteen; they rescue the whole lot, trudging through the snow, making this a nifty choice for winter viewing. When Pongo and Perdita arrive, there isn’t a question to them. They know their kind pets will give the entire bunch a home. As Roger says, “We’ll keep them. We’ll buy a big place in the country. We’ll have a dalmation plantation.” Why, that sounds like a great idea for a song! Roger sits at the piano and starts to sing. Again, all of London is alive with the sound of barking dogs.

Nanny, Anita, Pongo, and Roger.
This was the first Disney film to use Xerox technology in creating animation cells, as animators could copy their sketches directly onto cells, reducing the need for hand inking. And the modern backgrounds keep the look fresh and arty. This marked the end of an era, that of the labor-intensive hand inking of cells, but the lack of box-office appeal of the expensive (hand inked) Sleeping Beauty threatened to shut down the animation division of Disney, full stop. Money saving innovations helped to keep this part of the studio alive, and thank heaven. There’s 101 good reasons to see this film, but I’ll give you one: it stands up for love, loyalty, bravery, and generosity in an adorable, fantastical way. I adore the idea of this sweet, loving couple taking all those dogs out to the country. And no offense to the very game Glen Close in her live-action take on Cruella DeVil in the largely forgettable live-action version made in 1996, but this is the kind of story that finds its best telling in animation. And did. 

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