101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition
“Wouldn’t they make enchanting fur coats?” This is the question that sets in motion the events of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the studio’s seventeenth animated feature and also one of its best-loved. The flight of Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita and their troupe of ninety-nine puppies from the clutches of the villainous Cruella De Vil, determined to have her own spotted dog-skin coat, is so well-known now that the plot scarcely needs to be summarised.
The 1960s marked a turning point for the Disney studio. Following the opening of the Disneyland resort in Anaheim in 1955, and with other ventures such as the Disneyland TV series and various live action movies competing for his time, Walt Disney found himself with considerably less available time to devote to overseeing the production of his animated features. The less than impressive box office takings for 1959’s Sleeping Beauty heralded the end of lavish, big budget fairytale epics. The world was changing, and Disney, whose films had, so far, all been rooted in the past, would have to change with it in order to survive.
Stylistically as well as thematically, One Hundred and One Dalmatians constitutes a noticeable change of place for Disney. Set “not so very long ago” in London, it’s as relentlessly contemporary as its predecessors were antiquated. Adapted from a 1956 novel by English author Dodie Smith, the end result is probably the closest to the source material of any of Disney’s films. Smith was, at the time, the only author to have actually been alive to see her words translated to the screen, and it’s tempting to attribute her ongoing personal correspondence with Walt Disney, and his obvious affection for the book and its author, to the relatively subtle reshaping of the narrative in comparison with the studio’s last talking dog picture, Lady and the Tramp, rendered virtually unrecognisable from its source.
The changes that do take place are mainly there to tighten up the narrative, a task ably accomplished by Disney’s de facto head of story development, Bill Peet. The film certainly retains a laidback, carefree atmosphere, particularly in its early scenes, but whereas, in the book, the Dalmatians’ trek to Hell Hall and subsequent return were populated with numerous incidents and encounters with various animals and humans, the film reduces the former to its bare essentials, devoting more time to the latter and transforming it into an extended chase sequence with a limited number of pit stops along the way. In terms of keeping the narrative moving, it works, but it does mean that some of the book’s most charming moments, including an eerie encounter with an elderly man who mistakes the Dalmatians for ghosts of his own childhood pets, are lost in the process. Likewise, amusing little touches such as the dogs viewing “their” humans as their pets are alluded to but not fully explored, while the “dog’s eye” viewpoint which colours Smith’s writing and renders humans as a distant, confusing and slightly stupid enigma, is discarded in favour of a more universal perspective.
More problematic is the streamlining of the roles of the adult Dalmatians. Smith’s novel features the central characters of Pongo and his mate, Missis, but also includes a second female Dalmatian, Perdita, who ran away from her owner after her puppies were taken from her, and is adopted to help care for Pongo and Missis’ litter of fifteen. (A fourth adult dog, Perdita’s mate Prince, shows up towards the end of the book to take his place as the one hundred and first Dalmatian.) In the film, the roles of Perdita and Prince are scrapped, and Missis inherits Perdita’s name. In doing so, she loses much of her personality: in the book, Missis is a determined but not particularly bright dog, less in touch with the machinations of humans than Pongo but ultimately turning out to be more unyielding than him. In the film, she is reduced to the role held by many a Disney female character: a simpering, whining neurotic who serves no purpose but to tag along and wail “Oh, Pongo!” at appropriate moments. Likewise, the Colonel, an old sheepdog who assists with the Hell Hall rescue and a rather dignified character in the book, is portrayed here as a senile old fool. Somewhat more successfully, Cruella’s henchmen, the Baduns, rather predictably lose a lot of their menace and are recast as bumbling clots.
While the novel had a rosy-tinted, “Merrie England” feel to it, harkening back to a not too distant period in history that, in all probability, never actually existed, the film, while no less idealistic, situates itself firmly in the now – a London that is just beginning to swing and in which a man and his dog can simultaneously find love at first sight, and in which a struggling songwriter can provide for himself, his wife and seventeen pets. It is, of course, no less in the realm of fantasy than Sleeping Beauty, but the jaunty tempo and the immediacy of the setting ensure that it seems infinitely closer to our own world. Appropriately enough, it also benefits from a drastically different visual style compared to its predecessors. The Xerography process (the technique of photocopying the animators’ rough drawings directly on to celluloid instead of being traced and hand-inked) was obviously brought in as a cost-cutting measure, a means of producing more material with a reduced workforce, but it appears to have come along at precisely the right time, affording the artists a way of animating ninety-nine spotted puppies without having to redraw every single one of them by hand. (Unfortunately, this did result in a tendency to incessantly reuse footage, a process that continued into the 1980s.) Like Sleeping Beauty, the art is heavily stylised, but the look here is infinitely rougher and more vibrant, with decidedly angular character designs by Tom Oreb, and rough, impressionistic backgrounds courtesy of Walt Peregoy. The scratchy look, which Walt Disney apparently hated at the time and saw as nothing more than a necessary evil, is ultimately such an intrinsic part of the film’s appeal that it’s virtually impossible to imagine it with the “classical” look.
The highlight, however, is undoubtedly Cruella De Vil, a character so outrageous and overbearing that she eclipses everyone else in the film, rendering her animated counterparts thoroughly anaemic in comparison. Resembling a malnourished man in drag and brilliantly animated by Marc Davis (his last animation job for Disney), she set the standard for Disney villains for decades to come, while her voice, a stellar performance from Betty Lou Gerson (and a far cry from her previous Disney gig, providing the narration for Cinderella) is one of the best matches between visuals and sound that I can think of in animated film. It’s hardly surprising that so many viewers and critics alike, including those who normally look down their noses at animation, recognise her as one of the greatest movie villains of all time.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians marks one of the few occasions on which I read the book (a childhood favourite that I still revisit every few years) before seeing the Disney film. Consequentially, perhaps, when I finally did see Disney’s interpretation, it was something of a letdown, maintaining the plot of its source material but transposing a number of its most cherished moments. It’s still a cracking film, though, endlessly rewatchable and constituting a welcome change of pace from Disney’s previous string of folktales and fairy stories.
The eleventh Disney animated feature to get the prestigious Platinum Edition treatment, One Hundred and One Dalmatians arrives in a feature-packed 2-disc set with a transfer that is once again likely to have viewers debating its strengths and weaknesses, rights and wrongs until the cows (or should that be Dalmatians?) come home.
In a break from recent tradition, the film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which is almost certainly not how it would have been projected theatrically in 1961, given that, by then, most mainstream cinemas would no longer have been capable of displaying such a ratio. This is perhaps a concession to viewers (myself included) who felt that the recent DVDs of 60s and 70s fare such as The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood, presented in a matted ratio of 1.75:1, looked unnatural and poorly framed. Certainly, there are no obvious framing flubs with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, with no foreheads and feet being unceremoniously lopped off à la The Jungle Book and the overall composition looking flawless. I’m aware that the debate as to how these films “should” be viewed (as they were presented theatrically or as they would appear to have been composed and animated?) is not going to be settled any time soon, so I’ll say no more on this matter for the time being other than that I’m pleased Disney chose to present One Hundred and One Dalmatians in this ratio and wish they could extend this courtesy to the films from the same period that they have recently botched. (Try imagining the image above with 25% of its top and bottom cut off.)
From a technical perspective, the transfer is fine but far from exemplary. As usual, the film has been treated to a rigorous clean-up process which, far from simply removing wear and tear, transforms it into something that looks like it has never touched a film print. Therefore, while pristine, it now has a completely different aesthetic from its previous presentations: one which I don’t feel is a particularly faithful representation of the film. Compression is handled well, barring some mosquito noise during the opening credits, but, as is so often the case, overzealous filtering sucks out a lot of the fine detail and has the unfortunate effect of adding a noticeable amount of ringing to the animation’s striking black outlines. A comparison with the older DVD, VHS and LaserDisc releases also reveals noticeable differences on many occasions in the colour palette, with what was once grey now often appearing blue or green (e.g. the basement in which Pongo and Roger await the arrival of the puppies, the night-time Hell Hall exteriors), but it’s unclear whether this is further evidence of tampering and revisionism or the result of a more faithful reproduction of the source materials.
Audio-wise, Disney have once again ably serviced all tastes by providing both a snazzy new 5.1 remix and a restored version of the original mono recording. Purists will, of course, go for the latter, but there’s actually not a great deal of difference between the two tracks, the 5.1 remix being fairly subtle and confining the rears to simply augmenting the music score. The dialogue sounds a bit more natural on the mono track, being directed solely through the centre speaker (this is an actual 1.0 mix rather than the more common 2.0 dual mono sort).
French and Spanish 5.1 dubs are also provided, along with subtitles in all three languages for all of the extras. An audio presentation really doesn’t get any better than this.
Bonus features are spread across the two discs, the first as usual containing the film, previews for other Disney DVD and Blu-ray releases, and a dire reimagining of the film’s signature tune, Cruella De Vil, performed by a particularly obnoxious offering of jailbait by the name of Selena Gomez.
Sadly, unlike The Jungle Book, there is no audio commentary to be found. The trivia is instead relayed through two text-based tracks, in which various facts pop up at regular intervals. One track is labelled as being “for the family” and the other “for the fan”, but it’s not entirely clear how each piece of trivia was assigned to one or the other. To a broad degree, the material on the fan track tends to take a more technical, behind-the-scenes approach, examining various techniques pioneered in the film and name-dropping the artists responsible, while the family track spends more time examining the differences between the book and the film, and how elements of author Dodie Smith’s own life were worked into the story. In any event, neither track makes up for the absence of a commentary by an informed historian (someone like John Canemaker or Leonard Maltin would have been an ideal candidate), but the amount of information conveyed in text form is not to be sniffed at.
I’ll spare you having to read about the virtual puppy games and activities that adorn the second disc. I can’t believe Disney continues to pour time and money into developing these primitive diversions, as they are hardly likely to impress today’s Xbox and Playstation-raised children.
Disc 2 proper begins with the by now standard documentary, a 34-minute affair entitled Redefining the Line: The Making of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Watchable either as a single uninterrupted piece or split into seven individual sections each focusing on a specific element of the production, it’s up to the usual high standard of Disney’s retrospective pieces, supplementing archival interview material with the opinions of journalists and contemporary animation artists, among them Ratatouille writer/director Brad Bird, animator Andreas Deja, producer Don Hahn and historian Brian Sibley. Not many of the original crew are still alive to tell the tale, so contemporary interviewees are more or less limited to Lisa Daniels, the voice of Anita, who to be honest doesn’t have much to say. Stylist Walt Peregoy is also on hand, however, and his comments are vastly more interesting, while the other participants more than make up for this lack of first-hand information, however, tracing the film’s historical context and examining the new techniques it pioneered.
Somewhat more superficial is a 7-minute celebration of Cruella De Vil, in which many of the same people interviewed in the previous documentary wax lyrical about Disney’s most iconic of villains, examining her influences and the input of animator Marc Davis and voice artist Betty Lou Gerson. It sustains your attention, but is slightly lacking in substance.
This is followed by Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney, a 13-minute featurette which recreates the extended written correspondence that took place between Walt Disney and Dodie Smith before and after the film’s release. Taking the form of a rather cheesy but quite watchable dramatisation, introduced by voice-over narration by historian Brian Sibley, this provides a welcome insight into the degree to which Smith was kept abreast of the film’s development. An obvious Disney fangirl, there’s something incredibly infectious about her barely-contained delight at the thought of her book being turned into a film, and it’s a shame that she and Disney didn’t collaborate again, as they clearly planned to.
A selection of trailers, radio and TV spots follows, something that I am extremely happy to see given how often these important archival materials are omitted from Disney DVD releases. Rather than being limited to the promotional materials for the original 1961 release, they also include those pertaining to the film’s 1969, 1979 and 1985 re-issues, and it’s genuinely fascinating to see how the way in which the film was marketed changed over the years. These are accompanied by one of Disney’s typically lavish art galleries, containing close to 250 images, spanning from visual development sketches to storyboards to production stills.
Rounding out the package is a section devoted to the film’s music, including deleted and abandoned song concepts and multiple alternate takes of the Cruella De Vil and Kanine Krunchies songs.
Still one of Disney’s best-loved films more than 45 years later, One Hundred and One Dalmatians has been honoured with an impressive array of extras and a superlative audio presentation. Imperfect though the transfer is, this release is very much a must-buy for Disney fans, young and old.
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