Having not seen Walt Disney's "101 Dalmatians" since I was probably about eight years old, I was anxious to see how it has held up after all these years in Buena Vista's latest Platinum Edition DVD. To my delight, not only has it held up splendidly (as all of Disney's classic animated films do), but I actually found more to appreciate in it as an adult than I did as a child. One of the truly extraordinary qualities in Disney's films was the level of sophistication he brought to them, from the animation to the stories to the characters onscreen. He produced genuine family films as opposed to children's films, meaning that his movies had the capability to unite audiences of all ages with material that was gentle enough for the youngest children but exciting and gripping for their parents and even their grandparents. This is especially true for "101 Dalmatians," which marked a departure from the fairy tale landscapes of Disney's previous animated works, instead taking on a contemporary urban setting and an overall less romantic approach.
Set in 1960s London, the relatively simple story begins with Pongo (voiced by then little-known Rod Taylor), a bachelor Dalmatian who decides it is time that he found himself and his "pet" human Roger (Ben Wright) a couple of mates. He catches sight of Perdita (Cate Bauer), a lovely female Dalmatian, and her "pet" Anita (Lisa Davis) walking to the park and hatches a quick plan to get the four of them together. It is love at first sight all around, and Roger and Anita marry soon after. With the eventual discovery that Perdita is expecting puppies comes the arrival of Anita's old schoolmate, the outrageously fiendish Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson). She offers to buy the spotted pups when they are born to take them off the struggling couple's hands, but Anita and Roger cannot bear to let them go. Barely concealing her true intention of using the dogs to create a Dalmatian fur coat, Cruella hires two bumbling thieves to steal the puppies for her.
With their brood gone, Pongo and Perdita must rely on the help of animals across London, canine or otherwise, to spread word of the disappearance and be on the lookout for the missing puppies. What follows for the rest of the film is a remarkably touching portrayal of solidarity as dogs of various breeds, a cat, a horse, and even farm cows unite in finding and returning the Dalmatian puppies to safety. The unlikely camaraderie formed between these animals is brought about by a common enemy—man. Disney explored this theme nearly 20 years earlier in "Bambi," but this time the human characters are presented on both sides of the moral compass. Cruella is the very embodiment of selfish human desires, finding value in nature only as an accessory to her self-indulgent lifestyle. On the other hand, Roger and Anita, as well as their sweetly flustered maid, are loving individuals who treat their pets as members of the family. In one of the film's most endearing moments, Roger, whose nervous anticipation of the puppies' births exceeds even Pongo's, resuscitates a stillborn pup by gently massaging it in the palm of his hand.
What has truly kept "101 Dalmatians" alive in the memories of most children throughout the years, however, is Cruella De Vil herself, one of the most deliciously nasty characters in Disney's oeuvre. With her skeletal figure, smothering fur coat, sickly purple skin, and literally half-black/half-white hair, she is one of the most instantly recognizable characters in all of animated film. And with a vocal performance by Betty Lou Gerson that is for the ages, she has the personality to match. Her distinctly upper-crust cadence and haughty cackle smack of social elitism, yet she is physically repulsive. Constantly surrounded by a cloud of yellowish green smoke from her characteristic pink cigarettes, she seems to spew corruption with every move. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, Cruella De Vil is alternately comical and frightening and always mesmerizing when she is onscreen. A fleeting close-up shot of her crazed face as she furiously pursues the escaping puppies near the end of the film was one of the most startling cinematic images of my childhood, and it has not lost its effect on me.
Also worth noting about the film is its visual appearance. This was the first animated feature film to be made extensively using Xerography, a process that allowed the animators' drawings to be copied directly onto film cels rather than going through the traditional inking stage, during which artists would trace (and sometimes reinterpret) the original drawings. Due to certain limitations with the new technology, the animators were forced to adopt a different drawing style that was straighter and more angular than that of previous films. They turned to a much more stylized mode of drawing, with sometimes monochromatic and abstract backgrounds. The overall look is something akin to Modern art, and while Walt Disney was reportedly not happy with the stylistic departure, it suits the contemporary, "real world" setting. Composer George Bruns fashioned a bluesy score that nicely complements the Modern animation, and "101 Dalmatians" stands as a major turning point in Disney animation, both technically and artistically, that would prevail throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s with titles like "The Sword in the Stone" and "The Jungle Book."
Buena Vista's 2-Disc Platinum Edition of "101 Dalmatians" stands proudly next to its predecessors in quantity and quality, serving up a feast for both children and adults. The film has been beautifully restored and presented in a fullframe aspect ratio. The image is crisp and clean, with no visible artifacts. Colors are rendered nicely, showing no signs of aging at all. The black-and-white Dalmatians stand out with fine contrast. The film looks as good as new, and the transfer could not be more pleasing.
Audio is available in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track that sounds just fine, with clear vocals and music. The sounds of dogs barking are spread fittingly around the channels, and the track is never overwhelming or too heavy for its own good. The original theatrical mono soundtrack has also been restored and included as an option. In addition, French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are available, along with English captions for the hearing impaired and French and Spanish subtitles.
The film is accompanied by two different "101 Pop-Up Trivia Facts" tracks on Disc 1. The first is designed for family viewing, with fun facts that will be entertaining for children and the more casual viewer. The second track is designed for the more serious fan, containing more technical information about the animation and production as well as comparisons between the film and Dodie Smith's original book. Also on Disc 1 is a music video for Disney teen star Selena Gomez's new rendition of the song "Cruella De Vil" from the movie. The new, pop twist should appeal to children.
Disc 2 contains the bulk of the special features. They are divided into three categories, starting with a Backstage Disney section for "The Humans" (adults). First up is the seven-part, 34-minute "Redefining The Line: The Making of One Hundred and One Dalmatians." This takes us behind the scenes with interviews with the film's animators, Disney historians, voice actress Lisa Davis (Anita), and current Disney artists. The film is examined from its conception through production to its release with storyboards, animation tests, and production photos. I personally found the segments on the animation, particularly the innovation of Xerography, to be the most intriguing. The seven parts can be viewed individually or in succession with a "Play All" option.
Next is "Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad," a seven-minute featurette on the diva villain. Her appearance, voice, and place in animation history are explored through interviews with many of the same people from the previous feature. Early concept art is also shown.
"Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney" is a curious feature that presents dramatic readings and recreations of letters and correspondences between Walt Disney and author Dodie Smith in relation to the film. This 13-minute piece chronicles the author's excitement and anticipation over the film adaptation and highlights some of the discrepancies between book and movie.
This section of bonus features ends with a collection of trailers and radio and TV spots from the movie's various theatrical releases and several art galleries showcasing storyboards, concept character art, background designs, and production stills.
The next section, again for "The Humans," is called Music & More. An extensive collection of abandoned, deleted, and alternate versions of songs are included here, either newly recorded or, in most cases, in their original recordings. These include an alternate song about Cruella De Vil, a scrapped song from the puppies' escape scene played over storyboards of the deleted footage, and tests for the humorous "Kanine Krunchies" jingle.
The third category includes Games & Activities for "The Dogs" (children). For those with DVD-ROM capabilities, a "Disney Virtual Dalmatians" activity allows children to "adopt" a virtual dog and teach it tricks. A "Set-Top Sampler" is included on the disc to give viewers an idea of what's to come on this ROM feature. A "Puppy Profiler" activity lets children decide what kind of pet owners they are by having them answer questions about their likes and dislikes and determining what kind of dog they should own. Finally, a couple of "Fun With Language Games" are included, designed to teach children to recognize numbers and words. The games are obviously aimed at pre-schoolers and are appropriately paced.
It is wonderful to see that "101 Dalmatians" is still enchanting almost 50 years after its initial release, and it is made still better in Buena Vista's Platinum Edition. The cuddly canines and unforgettable villain make this sublime entertainment for children, but their parents will also appreciate the captivating story, its positive message, and the sophisticated visuals. Although it ventured away from the romanticized fairy-tale worlds of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Cinderella," it proved that the Disney magic transcends time and locations and that even contemporary London can hold that special charm. This is a classic Disney film that should not be missed by any child.