101 Dalmatians (Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman – 1961) In a strange way, 101 Dalmatians saved Disney animation. To explain, the movie was the next in line for production after Sleeping Beauty. That preceding film had a legendarily elongated production that pushed the detail and artistry of animation to a level never dared attempted before (and in a full 70mm presentation, no less). Today Sleepy Beauty is a classic, but on release it was met with mild profits and a collective shrug. As a result, the good folks at Disney considered abandoning their costly animation techniques all together. Then a radical production model shift was suggested for 101 Dalmatians, cutting down on frames and details, reducing the frame back to the Academy ratio, and (no joke) embracing the photocopier. Sounds silly, but it worked. The film still looked good, made far more money than it’s predecessor and as a result we all eventually got to see The Black Cauldron and The Princess And The Frog. So thank god for that. Sigh…
I jest of course. 101 Dalmatians is one of the more enduring and endearing Disney animated classics kicking around. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s outrageously charming and features one of the great Disney villains. So that’ll do just fine, thank you very much. Undoubtedly, you know the story. A plucky (if not particularly successful) British songwriter and his delightful dalmatian find love in another kindly owner/dalmatian combo. That inevitably leads to a litter of puppies, which leads to the arrival of the dastardly Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson). She wants those puppies to make herself a dalmatian coat and yadda, yadda, yadda. You’ve seen The Simpsons’ parody. You know the rest. It’s not the most ambitious Disney tale by a mile, but the mix of light comedy, suspense, and an anti-puppy-skinning message fills the content requirements for 80 minutes of friendly family fluff just fine.
The voice acting is goofily charming, the comedy consistent (if painfully polite), and the occasional bout of action or suspense fill the entertainment bill. The British setting offers an excuse for the intense Disney politeness as well as a healthy blast of heavily accented sardonic humor. The expressively animated Cruella and Betty Lou Gerson’s throaty evil performance are of course the highlight, a nasty bit of work with a nice undercurrent of bleak comedy. Though the animation was clearly toned down from Sleeping Beauty, it’s still an undeniably beautifully crafted film. Rather than looking like a breathing painting, 101 Dalmatians plays more like a European comic book. Designs mix between the rough and the impressionistic to the evocatively detailed. It’s the beginning of the Disney aesthetic that would continue through the 80s and one of the company’s most accomplished efforts from that period. Also worth noting is the fact that 101 Dalmatians was the first Disney movie given a contemporary setting and it still feels more modern than any of the company’s princess fairy tales over 50 years later. It’s a delightful film that might not require much brainpower to appreciate, but at least makes up for the dopiness with heart.
101 Dalmatians debuts on Blu-ray with an absolutely gorgeous disc. The color scheme for the film was always particularly vibrant an absolutely pops off the screen, while the added detail allows viewers to see all of the pencil strokes and brush strokes with vivid detail. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the visual presentation, while the lossless 7.1 soundmix preserves the original recording in crystal clarity and expanding the mix into surround without it ever feeling distracting. On a technical level, the disc is a stunner. The special features section is stacked as well, though not everything is worthwhile. The handful of new features are brief, punchy, and insubstantial (worst of all is the “411 On The 101” info feature for kids that is shockingly condescending). Thankfully, the features from the old DVD are ported over as well, which are far more worthwhile. In particular, a 35-minute documentary packs together a collection of Disney veterans involved in the production and high profile fans like Brad Bird to provide a wonderfully informative and downright fun exploration of 101 Dalmatians’ production and legacy (along with a 7-minute companion doc with all the same folks discussing Cruella De Ville on her own to promote that Glenn Close movie that you forgot about). The usual trailers, animation tests, and a cute animated short round out quite a nice disc from Disney. It’s actually surprising that it took so long for 101 Dalmatians to find it’s way on Blu-ray, but at least the disc was worth the wait. If you’re an animation buff or have access to a child, pick this sucker up immediately before it’s shoved back into the Disney vault.