Six years after Lady and the Tramp, Walt Disney produced his second dog movie, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. While the former was an entirely original story, 101 is based on a children’s book from 1956. After Sleeping Beauty failed to make a profit in its initial release, the studio cut this film’s budget and use cheaper animation techniques.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians turned out to be an instant success both critically and financially, earning Disney $2 million more than its budget during its initial theatrical release in North America alone. It was the number 1 movie in France that year with more than 14 million admissions sold. Even on its third re-release in 1991, it was the 20th most successful movie of the year. It eventually spawned a TV series, an animated sequel, a live-action remake in 1996 and a live action sequel to that, both of which were released theatrically. As a kid, I really enjoyed this one too.
Dodie Smith first released his children’s book in 1956. When Walt Disney read it the next year, he immediately loved it and asked for permission to adapt it. Smith secretly hoped that Disney would adapt it and said yes without hesitation. At this stage in Disney Studios, Walt Disney himself didn’t usually get too involved with the filmmaking process, focusing more on building Walt Disney World (which would eventually open in 1971) and the business side of the studio. He did however attend story meetings, and he felt that the first script was so perfect that they barely needed him for this movie at all. The movie made very few alterations to the original story – merely changing a few names, removing Cruella De Vil’s husband and adding a car chase at the end. It’s also noteworthy that 101 Dalmatians is the first Disney Animated movie that takes place during the same time period as its release. Every movie before that either took place in the past or in a fantasy world with no specific time frame.
With all this said about the movie’s success and my nostalgia for it, I thought it was just ok. The plot is about 15 Dalmatian puppies kidnapped by Cruella De Vil from a newlywed couple and their dogs. Her intention is to make a coat from their fur, and she ends up acquiring 99 puppies in total. The story follows their rescue at the hands of fellow dogs. The story itself isn’t bad, and the tension during the escape scene is well done. The problem for me is that the movie is just a big bag of cute, and I need more than just cute to keep my attention.
The movie opens up with Pongo narrating how his owner is a work-obsessed songwriting bachelor, and how he feels lonely without a romantic partner. He spots a Dalmatian lady being walked by her young woman owner, convinces his owner to take him for a walk, and basically forces them to meet up. It’s the kind of movie where the dogs are more intelligent than the humans. Instead of the cops finding the stolen puppies, the dogs find them with the help of a barking messaging service that overwhelms the city of London for a night. The shot above the streets of London filled with dogs barking and someone shouting “Shut up” is probably my favourite moment of the movie. It’s both amusing and absurd, and the visuals of all the blinking neon lights is really neat.
A quick side-note on that barking scene. A bunch of the dogs from Lady and the Tramp cameo during the bark messaging scene in 101 Dalmatians, even though they clearly take place in different centuries. But then again, Disney is known for these little Easter-Eggs. I’ll be sure to talk about more of these eggs in the future.
I previously mentioned Pongo’s work-obsessed owner, Roger Radcliffe, and his newlywed wife Anita. They’re not in the movie too much, but they’re fine characters. Roger does seem to balance out his work and social life more after he meets Anita, and Anita is shown as kind, but she doesn’t have much personality. They also hire a nanny to take care of their house, even though they don’t have kids and as far as I know, Anita doesn’t have a job. Pongo and Perdita, the two parental Dalmatians, are more developed than their owners. They’re determined to help their kids. Pongo is very motivated and logical, and Perdita notices that something is wrong with Cruella the moment she shows up, displaying emotional intelligence.
Clearly the best character in this movie is Cruella herself though. She’s a fashion obsessed former friend of Anita. She’s a bit of a psychopath. She doesn’t seem to care about anyone’s feelings but her own, and she’s willing to straight up steal puppies from their owners who clearly want to keep them. She sees herself as this classy figure, when she actually comes across as fake and overbearing. When things don’t go her way, she goes crazy, eventually destroying her car in the climactic car chase. Cruella really is the best part of this movie.
The animation isn’t anything spectacular, especially by Disney’s 50’s standards, but it works. The dogs move realistically. The backgrounds in the city feel like London. Cruella’s ridiculously sized fur coat masks her thin body, and her movements imply a sense of pride. The music isn’t anything particularly special either. Roger’s song about Cruella De Vil ends up being the only real musical number in this movie, and it’s a fun lounge style number that plays instrumentally while Cruella visits and asks about buying Anita’s puppies. You might find yourself humming it a bit after the movie ends. There’s also a Kanine Krunchies jingle that the dogs watch on TV, but it’s somewhere between cute and annoying. I could see either opinion, but for me it just exists. The rest of the soundtrack isn’t all that memorable, but it does enhance the tense mood while the dogs are trying to sneak past Cruella, covered in sot to make themselves look like Labradors.
As usual, I watched the live action remake in preparation for this post. Very much like the animated classic, it’s a cute movie but nothing special. Thankfully the dogs don’t talk in the remake, because dogs talking in live action movies with CGI mouths are just creepy. Where the original movie takes a more dramatic approach to the storytelling, 1996’s 101 Dalmatians goes full-blown comedy. It also expands on Roger and Anita, turning them into actual characters this time and giving them a bit more involvement in the story. It works fairly well and balances the movie out better. Like the original, Cruella De Vil is the best part of the movie. Glenn Close as Cruella is clearly having fun with the role. She’s so over the top that it’s impossible to look away, and it’s hard not to laugh along with her.
The slapstick comedy where Cruella’s thugs take constant pratfalls and get their balls electrified isn’t as funny. The movie also makes the clever change of turning Roger into an independent video game developer, something that I completely loved when I was a kid. For a time I almost wanted to play the game he kept trying to sell throughout the movie. Again the movie is just ok and I don’t see myself watching it again soon, but I remember really enjoying both the original and the animated remake as a kid. They’re about the same level of quality, just with different moods and takes on Cruella. So I guess that makes this remake by far the best one I’ve watched so far since I started doing these posts.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a big ball of cute. There are good filmmaking qualities, and more often than not the comedy works, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just cute. The story’s a bit absurd when you think about it, like how Roger and Anita just decide to keep all 101 Dalmatians at the end of the movie, with no mention as to how they could possibly afford it or how it’s even remotely legal. It entertained me as a kid and I’m sure it’ll entertain kids today, but I wouldn’t recommend this to adults. The same goes for the live action remake.
I’ve decided not to write a 101 Dalmatians vs Lady and the Tramp post after all. As much as they’re both about dogs, they’re completely different movies. One is a serious dramatic story that explores dogs on an emotional level, and the other is just a cute story where dogs seem to be smarter than their owners. So instead of wasting my time with that, I’ll just say straight up that I think Lady and the Tramp is by far the better of the two. The animation is better, the story is more dramatic, the characterization feels more true to how dogs act and it’s a brilliant twist on a common romance story. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is just a fun kids adventure movie starring dogs and a delightfully over the top villain.
Next up is The Sword and the Stone, which is the last Disney Animated Feature that released during Walt Disney’s lifetime. I remember enjoying it as a kid, but from what I’ve heard, it’s not nearly as good as I remember it. I’m kind of worried about this one. After that, it’ll be The Jungle Book and The Aristrocats.