Ellen Murray takes a look back at One Hundred and One Dalmatians and how penny-pinching marked an era of austerity & change of direction for Disney.
The history of the Disney Animation Studios is one of constant ups and downs. Despite being a highly astute businessman Walt Disney retained a special place in his heart for the fantastical whimsy animation could bring to life on screen, despite the fact that his animation department’s financial viability was in constant flux. Cinderella (1951) had provided a much-needed boost to the studio after the harsh war years but it was quickly followed by a string of commercial disappointments. Sleeping Beauty (1959), though a beautifully crafted film, had been produced at a huge expense which was not subsequently recouped in the box office. Talk of possibly abandoning animation in favour of live action films began to circulate. Thanks to the introduction of Xerox photography to the studio, however, One Hundred and One Dalmatians was successfully produced at half the estimated cost. While this penny-pinching method ultimately secured Disney’s animation department for the next decade or so, it also meant that the films produced by the studio from there on in would be decisively less ambitious in both scale and execution.
Not that every film has to be larger than life to be enjoyable, of course. One Hundred and One Dalmatians remains to this day a charming and funny film with one of the most memorable villains in animation history. The story follows two Dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, their owners, Roger and Anita, and their fifteen puppies as they live together in domestic bliss. In their ever conscientious mission to promote traditional family values, Disney changes the laws of nature by ensuring that even dogs do not copulate outside the sanctity of marriage. The safety of the canine clan is threatened however by the outrageously foppish Cruella De Vil, who wishes to purchase the Dalmatians to make herself a brand new coat out of their fur. Like most Disney villains, the best thing about De Vil is not her motivation but rather just her complete and utter lack of subtly. One could only imagine what sort of twisted parents this woman had to name her ‘Cruella’. Disney may as well have called her ‘Baddie McEvil’.
Once the puppies are kidnapped (dognapped?) by Cruella’s two henchmen, Jasper and Horace, the race is on to reunite the family and save the stolen puppies from a horrible fate. Story-wise there’s not a great deal of depth, it is what it is. This film is purely an adventure flick for kids. It doesn’t aim to convey any one singular moral that tends to come along with fairy-tale adaptations. That is not to say it is completely vapid; the importance of family is highlighted and also showing kindness towards animals. If there is a ‘message’ in this film, it would be not to give your child a name that sounds extremely similar to ‘cruel’ or else she might just live up to it.
Talking animals have been a staple of the Disney oeuvre since the company first began (its logo is an anthropomorphic mouse after all), but this film sees the writers and animators take cues from the real-life behaviour of dogs and using it in the film to explain how the animals communicate with one another. This is most evident in the ‘Twilight Bark’ sequence where Pongo and Perdita attempt to spread the news of their kidnapped pups to the other dogs in the city. Barking becomes Morse code, with each dog trying to interpret (or misinterpret) the message. Through this channel of information the puppies are discovered and reunited with their parents. This moves the plot along and creates a sense of a larger landscape all the while in-keeping with the more intimate feel of the film.
The use of Xerox photography, introduced to the studio by Ub Iwerks, meant that the animators no longer had to ink each cell individually. The gargantuan task of animating every spot on the one hundred and one Dalmatians was made much more manageable by this innovative method. While Xerox photography saved greatly on time (and money) it also meant that the film’s animation style lost some of its finesse. It is even said that Walt himself was upset by the films artwork, feeling that it was too harsh. Where before the outlines were smooth here they are more blurry, giving the film a fuzzy, almost sketchy visual. This ultimately makes One Hundred and One Dalmatians ‘look’ older than its earlier animated counterparts. Of course, this being a Disney production ensures that the colours are still bright, the character designs engaging and their movements fluid.
This film would mark a change in direction for Disney animation. All subsequent works by the studio would follow the films more angular visual style in favour of the soft pastels and doe-eyes that had been used in Disney flicks up to that point. This would become regular practice up until the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, the film which marked the beginning of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ and saw a return to the more fantastical elements of the studio’s earlier works. However, a change of pace was exactly what was needed for Disney animation at the time. The studio enjoyed multiple successes throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including The Jungle Book (1967) and the more mild The Aristocats (1970).
The thing about change though is that it is constant. By the 1980s, Disney once more found itself in a downward spiral accumulating in the disaster that was 1985’s The Black Cauldron, a film that was unpopular with critics and cinema-goers alike and the subject of my next article. Until then…