Extended Thoughts on ‘101 Dalmatians’

101 Dalmatians

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman

Written by Bill Peet

Starring Betty Lou Gerson, Rod Taylor, Ben Wright

One of the great ironies of xerography is that, while it was created to help cut costs for the animation arm of the Walt Disney Company, it was first used in a way that was, surprisingly, creatively ambitious. Xerography was a process that Ub Iwerks adopted for the use of animation in the late-1950s; it’s not really hyperbole to say that xerography saved animation at Walt Disney as we know it. If you’ve been listening to the show for a while, and reading these columns, don’t worry. I haven’t received a sharp blow to the head, nor has an alien replaced me. I can’t stand most of the xerographic films from Disney from the 1960s and 1970s. (There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I find this era something better left forgotten.) But it came about because Walt Disney was spending too much money on animation and not making enough off of films like Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp.

Considering the way the film industry works these days, and considering how long Disney has seemed like the king on top of the animation heap, it’s still a bit baffling to imagine a period when the company didn’t have enough money to make whatever it wanted, animation-wise. As much as I may criticize the animation studio, and as much as most of their recent films seem like only a halfway-successful attempt to recall former glory (The Princess and the Frog excluded, because it’s the best), I love Disney animation. I can’t fathom a day when the company isn’t making animated features. So despite whatever else I may say, I am glad Disney adopted the xerography process, and that 101 Dalmatians, the first animated film to utilize that process, was so wildly successful.

The trade-off is rough, I’ll grant you: to continue animating films, Walt Disney chose to be cheap. But I’d rather he be cheap than move away entirely from what brought him worldwide fame to begin with. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about 101 Dalmatians is that it doesn’t look nearly as cheap as you might think it does, and certainly looks less ramshackle, less thrown together than the films that would follow it, like The Sword in the Stone or The Aristocats. I’m not sure why that’s the case—the film cost $2 million less than Sleeping Beauty and its color palette is certainly nowhere near as bright or striking as the animation output from the 1950s. But 101 Dalmatians, despite having seriously dark and grim elements, is a more pleasing film to watch than the ones that would follow in the 1960s and 1970s.

What I find most frustrating about the xerography process in this film versus the others from Disney utilizing this form is that it eventually came to typify laziness. You might think that xerography in general is a form of laziness for animators—Xerox is where the term gets its life and history, and what doesn’t seem lazy about copying material? But as was pointed out on the podcast, in some ways, xerography forced the animators at Disney to get hungry, to get tough, to not become complacent. Or, it should have. In the case of 101 Dalmatians, the Disney animators chose a book that may have had a perfectly cinematic hook, but one that would be a bitch to complete. Oh, sure, the animators didn’t actually create each of the 6.5 million spots in the film by hand, but even still…6.5 million spots. Even when the Disney animation arm couldn’t have all the money in the world to burn, they aimed high.

Even now, I’m still not a fan of xerography. But 101 Dalmatians proves that it’s not impossible to avoid slacking on the final product when using this process. All things considered, I’m not sure that this is a particularly ambitious film on the whole—spots aside—but it’s a confidently entertaining one. I hadn’t seen this in a few years, and only truly remembered that I didn’t like Cruella De Vil not getting any comeuppance at the end of the story. I don’t know that I would go as far as Mike did on the show, calling her potentially the best-ever Disney villain. But she’s up there, next to characters like Maleficent, the Queen from Snow White, and newer characters like Ursula and Scar. Those characters all get what’s coming to them, though. Maleficent dies at the hand of Prince Philip and his sword; Scar is killed by his once-devoted hyenas; Ursula is killed by Prince Eric (in a very similar fashion to how Maleficent is offed); and the Queen falls off a cliff to her demise. These iconic baddies are all partly defined by how they go, or by the fact that they die at all.

Cruella De Vil doesn’t die. Cruella De Vil just…nothings. She receives no comeuppance at all. Oh, sure, she gets into a car accident with her dimwit henchmen, Jasper and Horace. And yes, she isn’t successful in acquiring the titular pooches to make an expansive, glamorous fur coat. But what happens next for her? I brought this up on the show, but I was also surprised at how little we learn of Cruella De Vil’s history, compared with what we learn in the 1996 remake. On the podcast, our guest Keith Phipps of The AV Club argued that this could’ve been a subtle bit of class warfare, as we watch Roger and Anita, the human protagonists, wilt under Cruella’s obvious disdain for such things as day-to-day work. Thus, her lack of comeuppance could be a case of the rich getting away (almost, here) with murder. And while I get that argument, and it kind of holds water, I hesitate to agree with it entirely if only because I’m not sure the Disney filmmakers were thinking that deeply.

Here’s the thing: Cruella De Vil is such an iconic villain because she’s evil incarnate. The majority of 101 Dalmatians feels like it takes place in an amalgam of the real world at the time of the film’s release. We don’t move very far outside of two major settings, Roger and Anita’s domicile and Cruella De Vil’s mansion, Hell Hall. Though there are plenty of creative flourishes—such as non-dalmatian dogs who look like their owners and vice versa—the movie is rooted, grounded in the present day in a way that pretty much every other Disney animated film up to that point didn’t. (As mentioned on the show, Lady and the Tramp comes very close, except that it was set near the turn of the 20th century.) And yet, Cruella is the villainess as rooted in old forms of storytelling. She’s the witch who must be defeated, the troll under the bridge. For the animators to build her up as this devilish figure, but then leave us hanging about her whereabouts is inexplicable and potentially lazy. I don’t dislike the reading that Keith and Mike had into this finale, but what in the film actually supports it? At best, this is deeply hidden subtext. The book may well have included more about who Cruella was, about how she fit into the overall English landscape of the late 1950s. But the movie doesn’t; though I don’t always cotton to the idea that we should stick to what’s inside the film to analyze it, this is one film where I can’t help thinking it.

And I suppose the biggest reason why the lack of an ending bothers me is because, otherwise, 101 Dalmatians is enjoyable, an entertaining animated feature that almost succeeds because it doesn’t feel particularly ambitious. Animation issues aside, this is a film with a very simple plot, one with very few characters who are truly memorable. (Sure, Roger is the one to sing “Cruella De Vil,” arguably one of the most popular and beloved Disney songs, and rightly so. But do you remember anything else about him?) I would almost call this a forgettably enjoyable movie, one that’s good at what it wants to do, but doesn’t leave a huge mark. (On me, that is.) Watching this movie get so close to perfection in its various sequences featuring the titanic Cruella De Vil makes it all the more frustrating. At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised by 101 Dalmatians, while being even more disappointed by the xerographic films that would follow it in the 1960s and 1970s. The same people who chose to do better, to do the best work they could with less of a budget, chose the lazy way out afterwards. 101 Dalmatians proved their hard work paid off at least once.

– Josh Spiegel

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