Saturday, April 7, 2012

Let’s Review a Movie: 101 Dalmatians (1961)

It’s time to look at what was my favourite Disney movie for the early part of my childhood.  It was later usurped by a movie from the Disney Renaissance, but that’s for another time. 

Honestly I love this film.  I think everybody about it works.  The opening credits alone are incredible.  The way the spots were used to show the actor's names in time to the music, and then used to make musical notes.  The use of the Pongo’s face and the run cycle to show off the names of the animators; the use of line drawings and colouring to show the names of the background artists and colourers is just ingenious; I love to just watch the credits without even watching the actually film they’re great all by themselves.  It’s easy to see that everybody was really putting their all into this picture and why, because it was breaking so much new ground at the time for the studio.

 First this was the test vehicle, in feature films, of the Xerox process which would give the studio its new animation look for the next thirty years.  Xerox does lack the subtlety of the ink line, which I personally think even the computer hasn’t quite managed to recapture yet, but that certainly doesn’t make it a bad look.  It gives the animation a looser more fluid feel, because it’s not being passed through others to trace over to create the cel before being painted in.  It also works really well here because they worked to blend the backgrounds and the character designs properly, and the fact that the Dalmatians are black and white only aids this choice.  Also having a lot of night time city backgrounds given the time period in which it’s set really makes this new look work.   

Not only is the look different for Disney the subject matter is too.  The film is, as many describe it, contemporary.  It doesn’t take place once upon a time in a kingdom far, far away.  It takes place in, what was then, present day London where people drive cars, smoke, and watch TV.   The TV itself also has period shows like What’s My Crime?  A parody of the then popular game show What’s My Line?  The romance, that is so often the entire plot of Disney movies, is over in the first ten minutes and we get to see life after the courtship and wedding and that’s really refreshing.  Anita and Roger act like a young couple.  They flirt and fight, but they are still strong for each other.  Pongo and Perdita are good together and they work together as a unit to get the puppies home which is great.  Another big change is that the film is not a musical in any sense, though music is a key element to the film, but there are only two songs with words in them and they aren't there to advance the plot, just to provide character insight in the case of the better known one 'Cruella De Vil', though I think they are both good.  But I have always wondered, couldn’t Cruella sue Roger for slander because the song he wrote is clearly about her?  

Speaking of Cruella De Vil she herself is a great villain.  Her animation is a wonderful final performance by Marc Davis before he moved on to work on projects for Disneyland. I love that her hair matches the black and white of the Dalmatian fur, I love how she is actually skinny but her fur coat is so big and overwhelming.  I love that she tries to be this sophisticated lady and yet she’s sticking her cigarette out in cupcakes, yelling at Jasper and Horace, and in the car chase at the end all the venire is lifted away and she is revealed for the monster that she is.  Also I think we also have a first in Disneydom for her.  She’s been a rotten person throughout the entire movie, as is proper of Disney villains.  Then she gets into a car accident that should have killed her and yet she is clearly shown not to have died in it or been arrested afterwards.

The rest of the cast of characters is fun and diverse.  Pongo and Perdita are proactive and protective of their children; and they don’t turn into totally killjoys when they become parents either.  The puppies even have some different personalities in the pack like Patch and Rolly.  Sargent Tibbs is great as the cat willing to do everything for duty, and good at thinking on his feet too when he’s trying to help the puppies escape.  Jasper and Horace are fun as comedic relief henchmen.  Them making fun of Nanny as they come to steal the puppies never fails to make me laugh.  I love them just lounging around as they have to watch over the puppies, and them getting flung through the barn wall by the captain.  The only problem I have with them, and the movie as a whole, is Horace’s action of steering their truck off the road in the final chase scene so they hit Cruella’s car instead of the moving truck.  I didn’t get it as a kid and I still don’t get it now.  Why did he do that?  Was he scared that they wouldn’t survive hitting the truck?  Was he having a change of heart about killing the dogs?  Oh well in the grand scheme of things that is a very minor complaint in what I believe to be an excellent contribution to cinema.    

This film is nearly a flawless masterwork I think. It’s wonderful in showing off a new animation technique and making it look very sleek and professional.  It has a good mix of characters, a great villain, and a nice change of venue for the usual Disney setting of storytelling. I enjoy the music and I think the plot is engaging.  It’s beautifully made film from its characters to its credits and it still hangs on well to second place on my Disney favourites list. 

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