The year is 1961: Elvis Presley is wiggling his hip across vast plains of the Western world; the USA has just declared its intentions for Vietnam; and in a small bachelor flat just next to Regents Park, Dalmatian Pongo and his pet human Roger are missing the love of a good woman. And so begins Disney’s seventeenth venture, a far cry away from the grandeur of jewel encrusted story books and belting choirs which had almost become Disney trade marks on their earlier films. One Hundred and One Dalmatians marked the end of an era for Disney in the way they animated their films, which was no longer to be done painstakingly by hand but by Xerox ; and in their use of animation, no longer confining it to fairy tales and classicism but spreading its reaches to real life situations and characters like the luckless musician Roger.
The premise of the film is unlike anything Disney fans had ever seen before. Gone are the wicked witches and beautiful princesses; gone are forest cottages and humble critters; instead a dreary afternoon in uneventful London town is the setting and the new, simpler style of animation (although used initially for financial reasons following Sleeping Beauty’s flop) captures this perfectly from the word go. Rough outlines and blocks of colour make up the typically disorganized Victorian townhouses which line Regents Park and Roger’s typically messy bachelor pad is a mishmash of shapes and lines forming rough impressions of objects. There is nothing abnormal in the film’s set-up, which is perhaps why 101 Dalmatians is one of the more memorable and successful Disney films which brought about a change of fortunes for the studio and emerging as one of the decade’s most successful films: it is hugely easy to relate to for even the most restricted imagination as, aside for the talking dogs (although I’m convinced that dogs really do talk when there’s no one around), every aspect of the film is entirely believable, if a little optimistic.
The story, based on the beloved children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, tells of Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita, the doting Dalmatian parents of fifteen adorable puppies who are stolen by the dastardly fur-fiend, Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson). With the help of their four legged friends and their astonishingly advanced Twilight Barking network, the Pongos must track down their puppies and save them from a cruel death at the hands of De Vil and her two gargoyle-esque minions, brothers Horace and Jasper Badun.
The film is beautifully accompanied by George Brun’s subtle score and features what has since become one of the sixties’ most memorable jazz numbers ‘Cruella De Vil’, written by the magnificent Mel Levin after being inspired on his drive to work. Notably, 101 Dalmatians is Disney’s first film is not really classified as a musical, despite the fact that one of the principal characters, Roger, is a musician by living. Any songs which do feature are again completely in keeping with reality; there are no big song and dance numbers, no street scenes bursting into spontaneous song but Roger practising his newest compositions (in the film ‘Cruella De Vil’ is one of Roger’s compositions and becomes his first big hit).
Cruella herself is undoubtedly a masterpiece. She is a breakthrough character for Disney for, for the first time, the villain is truly and simply an old hag. Never mind being second fairest in the land, Cruella would come first in a Best Halloween Competition without having to dress up, such is her hideousness. Although her character is lifted straight from Smith’s book, she is brought to life with such ferocity and strength that Marc Davis, Cruella’s directing animator, is said to have been concerned that he was upstaging the other characters with his creation.
Cruella is also responsible for adding an element to the story which we haven’t necessarily seen in earlier Disney releases: such is Cruella’s obsession and evilness that we have real fear for the lives of each and every puppy. This is also attributable to the film’s inherent resemblance to real life. In reality there are no dragons, poisoned apples and glass slippers but there are fur coats and daylight robberies and with no fairy godmother to rush to their aid, each and every time Cruella nearly catches up with the puppies there is a sincere worry that she will find and re-capture them and far from spending an eternity in blissful slumber within a glass coffin, they will be slaughtered, skinned and paraded about as this season’s ‘must have’ fur coat. Serious stuff.
But in an age when the times they were a’changin’, 101 Dalmatians captured the mood of a decade with its frank, no frills depiction of a real life situation (that’s ‘frank’ and ‘real life’ in Disney terms, of course) and Disney would see its success repeated with similar tales such as The Fox and the Hound and The Aristocats – both films deal with real situations through the eyes of the animals they affect.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a simple story beautifully told. It is fast paced, sentimental and above all funny and these are the qualities which will cement it in film history for years and years to come and perhaps if we’re really lucky, will convince publishers to get the book back in print before my birthday next year. Hint, hint.