Looking Back…Disney Animated Classics: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

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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…

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Looking Back…Disney Animated Classics: Cinderella (1950)

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Ellen Murray continues her series with a look back at how Disney took a risk on releasing Cinderella in the post-war market and explains its appeal.

 

The 1940s was not a good decade for Walt Disney. WWII had made it almost impossible to export American films to the European markets and the studio was suffering for it. Despite producing a number of critically acclaimed hits throughout the decade, such as Fantasia (1941) and Bambi (1942), none had been a box-office success and Disney Animation Studios was verging on the brink of collapse. As such Cinderella, being the first full-length animated film with a three-act narrative made by the studio in a number of years, had a lot riding on it. Luckily for Disney the film was a smash, both in the box office and with the critics. The film also marked Disney’s return to the classical fairy tale – something it had not focused on since the studio’s first major success, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in 1937. As to whether or not Snow White or Cinderella was the first official ‘Disney Princess’ is still the hotly debated topic amongst girls (and boys of course!) in the schoolyard.

Perhaps the appeal of Cinderella lies in its relatability. After all, who doesn’t dream of magically achieving a life better than the one they currently have? Some people call it the ultimate tale of class transcendence but that is a rather glib interpretation. The moral behind the tale that most people buy into, and I would count myself amongst them, is that kindness and goodness will ultimately be rewarded while greed and cruelty will simply perpetuate the same, just as Lady Tremaine’s mean disposition is reflected in her two daughters. It’s true that this is an overly simplistic moral that doesn’t really hold any bearing in the real world but it’s a pleasant one all the same and through its simplicity the base concepts of integrity are conveyed to the film’s young audience. Maybe just be prepared to suspend disbelief. You never know ladies, your shoe size may one day be indicative of whether or not the love of your life is willing to marry you, or not! Disney’s adaptation is a decisively cleaner version as well – in the original fairy tale Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their toes in an attempt to make the glass slipper fit. Truly a gruesome twosome.

Forgoing the self-mutilation in favour of friendly animal sidekicks and song, Disney’s Cinderella still makes for a charming watch. Feminists claim that the film poses a problematic precedent for young girls – namely that Cinderella is very passive and relies on the actions of others to achieve anything. The Prince (who is never actually given a name or indeed a personality) falls in love with her simply because she is beautiful. These criticisms are legitimate but to give Cinderella some credit what little we do get from her is pretty good. She’s kind, she works hard and she manages to retain a positive attitude even with her unfortunate circumstances. I know I would become bitter if I had to sleep in a draftee attic and wear dresses made by a bunch of rodents who were also my only companions.

Much of Cinderella’s pleasantness is down to her voice actress, Ilene Woods, who manages to make something of a pretty one-dimensional character. The voice acting throughout is actually executed perfectly, particularly in the form of icon Eleanor Audley’s Lady Tremaine (Audley would later go on to voice the badass that is Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty). What makes Lady Tremaine work so well is that we all know someone like her in real life; this character is subtle yet drastically over the top and, for all her airs, is just a downright scornful bitch. She’s the perfect foil for the perfect Cinderella. For all the forced comedy in the film, courtesy of the animal characters, there’s also a surprising amount of more nuanced jokes scattered throughout. For example, when Cinderella first arrives at the palace for the ball we get a quick shot of the guards trying to get a sneaky look at the mysterious beauty’s derriere. It’s what Dara O’Briain would call ‘Something for the Dads’.

Undoubtedly, the strongest element of the film is its animation. This is Disney after all and Disney is all about producing the best. The soft colours and fluidity of the film lend it a dreamy air that suits its fairy tale origins down to a tee. The scene where Cinderella’s dress is transformed into a magnificent ball gown was said to have been Walt Disney’s favourite piece of animation produced by his studio and it’s easy to see why. Her dress looks like a floating glittery cloud. The film is also very creative with how it allows its mice characters to move around the chateau, getting some very interesting shots and angles in. The songs make for nice listening too though they are very much of the time. Seriously, try getting Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo out of your head. You can’t, can you?

Cinderella may not have been one of Disney’s most ground-breaking works but it contains enough striking imagery to retain its place in the pantheon of animated classics. It delivers on what it promises and, for many, remains the epitome of classic Disney. Let’s be honest, any film that can make glass shoes seem wearable contains a special brand of enduring magic.

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Looking Back… Disney’s Animated Classics: Bambi (1942)

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Ellen Murray looks back at Disney’s 1942 animated classic Bambi, returning to that trauma and how the film challenged its audience by examining some of the more complex – and even sinister – aspects of the proverbial food chain.

Images of pink flowers and cutsie woodland creatures are what usually spring to mind when one thinks of Bambi. That and, of course, the other thing…

It was one of the first films to cause trauma on your childhood innocence and make you wonder why on earth a skunk character would be called Flower, but Bambi has endured the decades as an undisputed classic – and for good reason. Disney secured the rights to Felix Salten’s 1923 novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods in 1937 but the story was considered too grim and serious in tone to be suitable for child viewers.

The adaptation was an unusual choice for Disney who was depending on the film to be a success to secure the studios precarious future after a string of financial disappointments in the box office. But hey, add in some pastel colours, maybe a few fluffy bunnies, edit out the more graphic violence, and presto you’ve got yourself a kids flick! To be fair, while Disney’s adaptation is an undoubtedly water downed version of its source material, the film still retains a darker undercurrent that continues to fascinate adults and kids alike. People tend to remember the point up to Bambi’s mother’s death but rarely what comes next. What begins as a pleasant romp around a fairy-tale forest suddenly takes a sharp turn when Bambi finds himself without a mother to guide him through his informative years. Concerns about nature conservation and illegal hunting also come to the foreground (indeed, Bambi’s image was used as the face of fire prevention by the American government until 1944) as the threat of ‘man’ lingers ever present over the life of the characters.

For all its whimsy, Bambi ultimately seeks to challenge its audience by examining some of the more complex (and even sinister) aspects of the proverbial food chain. There’s feel-good mush to spare in this film yet danger is never far off screen.

In terms of animation the film also looks fantastic. The decision to use oils rather than watercolours gives the pieces a far richer texture than anything else being produced by the other leading animation studios of the time. Each frame looks like it could belong in a classical art gallery. The attention to detail is breath taking; we see individual raindrops glisten on flower petals and branches move gently in the breeze. The animation was so good, in fact, that it was to later be recycled in several of Disney’s later films. Talk about getting your money’s worth! Very little dialogue is spoken on the film with only an estimated 1000 words in the script. Instead the story is driven entirely by its musical soundtrack and its visuals, ironically creating a world that is much more emotionally engaging by leaving language behind. Or maybe people just really think Thumper is super adorable.

Disney is often held as the forerunner (or enforcer) of today’s mainstream animation standards. While Disney’s dominance over the industry can be viewed as somewhat problematic, films such as Bambi show us why it was they gained such a high status in the first place.

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