101 Dalmatians
Rating -

Animated (US); 1961; Rated G; 79 Minutes

Rod Taylor: Pongo
Betty Lou Gerson: Cruella De Vil
Cate Bauer: Perdita
Lisa Daniels: Perdita
Ben Wright: Roger Radcliff
Frederick Worlock: Horace Badun
Lisa Davis: Anita Radcliff
Martha Wentworth: Nanny
J. Pat O'Malley: Colonel/Jasper Badun

Produced by Walt Disney; Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton S. Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman; screenwritten by Bill Peet; based on the novel by Dodie Smith

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Disney's "101 Dalmatians" is an unusual piece of work because it shamelessly ruptures from the threads of common sense. Cartoons have different rules than live action when tinkering with stories, but here is an idea so ridiculous and absurd, it is amazing how animators thought they could have gotten away with it. The theory that animals can talk with human vocabulary is unbelievable enough; imagine seeing them outwit a viscous dog-napper, and traveling miles in the snow at a staggering number of 101. These images are passable (sometimes), but when Pongo, the head of the Dalmatian family, takes inventory of his children, we jump to our feat and shout in wonder--"Who taught these dogs to count?"

A lot of the postwar Disney cartoons flourished from the same prospects, and by the time "101 Dalmatians" followed up with "The Sword In The Stone," those ideas had completely consumed the animated genre. Of course, Disney died in 1967 upon completing "The Jungle Book," but he left behind a legacy that would only force his studio to pursue new and exciting heights. The animation department experimented for the next few years, starting with the last approved Disney project, "The Aristocats," and eventually ending with what is generally considered the rebirth of animation, "The Little Mermaid" (although 1985's "The Black Cauldron" was the first to truly sparkle on screen). In between were projects of poor quality and often ludicrous payoffs. Each succeeded in their own ways, yes, but none approached the magic of earlier Disney days, which ended in 1959 with the masterpiece "Sleeping Beauty." "101 Dalmatians," released in 1961, was the first to precede that classic, and, by comparison, it is uneven, disappointing and lacking in artistic merit. But despite flaws, we have constant admiration for the insanely-written plot, which sets us up on a tour with 101 dogs as they make their way through cities and snow-covered landscapes to get away from their enemy, in this case the notorious Cruella De Vil.

The story is already familiar with animation buffs. It tells the story of Pongo and his "pet" Roger, two bachelors who, at first glance, are happy with their lifestyle. But the Dalmatian describes his life as "downright dull," and is determined to find mates for both he and his owner. In one of the film's most successful scenes, Pongo sits at a window and examines the pairing of women/dogs, and whether or not they qualify as successful mates for both he and his pet (naturally, he makes up his mind simply by the dog's appearance). At least, with this peculiar story, Pongo is willing to admit that dogs are a poor judge of human beauty.

After a few pairs pass, he finds what he is looking for. Now the difficulty comes into play--how does Pongo bring both couples together? Simple: Roger takes his pet for walks after five. If Pongo manages to set the clock ahead of time, he and Roger may very well pass the females in the park. The story takes chances, and always gets away with them.

All of these coincidences and unbelievable animal characteristics might have failed, if it weren't for the presence of Cruella De Vil. Cartoons of the past guarantee admiration if they are able to attract a ruthless but well-animated villain to the viewer. De Vil, one of the few scoundrels to actually be female, is perhaps one of the strongest; her style as woman in love with animal fur coats inflames us with droves of dislike. Yet she also generates a sense of admiration, as mishaps prevail over her diabolical plans, and she loses sanity when the dogs have seemingly outwitted her. The pairing of Jasper and Horace, the two hired bandits working for Ms. De Vil, is observant as well.

The animation certainly doesn't score points. Being the first of the animated vault to use a process called "Xerox animation," in which animators could cut corners and copy images instead of redrawing them, the film repeats character animations in extreme ways. The 101 Dalmatians themselves have a dimensional quality to them as they scurry through halls and down hills, but the backgrounds lack depth and are filled with hard edges. The animators might have resorted to this because their previous production, the lavish "Sleeping Beauty," was budgeted 6 million dollars, and it failed to turn up profit. This new process enabled animators to get movies out faster, but in the process, decent stories were accompanied by ugly and familiar animated styles. Compared to the early days, in which characters and scenarios were hand-crafted, these films were second-rate.

It will be interesting to see how well the movie sells on DVD. After two VHS editions, not to mention countless theatrical re-releases, the Disney cartoon that attracted so many die-hard animation fans has apparently gained more popularity than it deserves. Even though it clearly doesn't deserve the attention of the cartoon classics, like the recent release of "Pinocchio," we understand why this is the case--because the story's absurdity and over-the-top quality have a soggy charm, and the characters (with the exception of the dogs) are written with unique personalities. This isn't one of those Disney masterpieces like "Fantasia" or "Bambi," but it is an entertaining, observant film with enough credit to its name to be considered recommendable.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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