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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Friday, November 12, 2010

“I Live for Furs! I Worship Furs!”

            You know, it’s not been something I’ve really noticed until I watched the two films on the same day, but it’s really jarring to go from Sleeping Beauty to One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  It’s kind of like hanging up paintings by Botticelli and Picasso right alongside each other.  Both are good, but in different ways.  Sleeping Beauty proved to be the last film of its kind.  In order to cheaply animate the amount of spots required for one-hundred-and-one Dalmatians, the studios began using a Xeroxing process that could replicate sketches onto cells, cutting time and labor in half.  It’s what gave One Hundred and One Dalmatians and several subsequent films that signature sketchy look.  The result: One Hundred and One Dalmatians has a pop art look and feel in both art direction and story.
            Unfortunately, the easier process came at the cost of the ink and paint department.  It was no longer required for animation cells to hand inked onto the cells, meaning that an entire department of the Disney Studios was suddenly out of work.  For the record, though, Walt hated the way Xeroxing looked.  He loved the refined, perfected look of Sleeping Beauty.
            But really, how else were animators at the time supposed to create all of those spots?  And for this story, creating spots was a must.  The film was based on the novel by the same name by one Dodie Smith.  Quite a few liberties were taken in adapting the novel into the film, probably the biggest one being changing Pongo’s wife’s name from Missus to Perdita (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055254/trivia). 
            I do really like this movie though.  Granted it was not as detail oriented or refined as Sleeping Beauty, but I can appreciate the cell overlay approach they took with the backgrounds in order to get them to match the characters.  One of my favorite scenes is towards the end when the dogs have rolled in soot and are trying to reach the van going to London.  The moment when the drops of melting snow begin to blot off their sooty disguises creates a momentary reverse Dalmatian: instead of black spots on white fur, we see white spots dotting black fur.  This was the first Disney animated film released in the 60’s.  And as we all know, in regards to the 1960’s, the times they were a changing, and so the studio had to evolve as well. 
            For one thing, this film’s setting was a modern one, a 1960’s Bohemian London, as indicated by the artistic Afghan hound owner who Pongo checks out as a potential mate.  Probably my favorite sequence in the whole film was the beginning.  The way Pongo addressed Roger as his pet is something many a dog lover can attest to.  I also find the way he stared at magazine covers to try and figure out what makes a beautiful woman to be absolutely adorable.  The whole sequence where he watches dogs and their pets from his window, and seeing the way they reflected each other was classic.
            If I had to choose one Disney moment that perfectly encapsulates the romantic comedy convention, “meet cute,” it was the moment Pongo forced a meeting between Roger and Anita.  The moment where Roger and Anita begin to laugh together at their mutually wet handkerchiefs is really nice.  I really like Anita; her design perfectly embodies a modern, slightly geeky woman. I think Lisa Davis called it on Platinum Edition documentary that the animators were heavily inspired by the way that she looked.  By the way, the man who voiced Roger was Ben Wright, and he would go on to become one of the few golden age Disney actors to go on to have a role in a Disney renaissance film: He would later voice Grimsby, Eric’s mentor, in The Little Mermaid.
            Of course, the happiness for both couples can’t last forever.  In the scene following both couples’ nuptials, we are introduced to one of Anita’s old schoolmates.  Roger comes up with a very famous song (easily the only song to have a life outside of this film) right on spot:  “Cruella DeVil, Cruella DeVil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.”  At this point, the audience has neither seen nor heard any mention of someone named DeVil so all we are allowed to know about her before her introduction happens in this song.  Of course, a first time viewer might be thinking, “Oh come on, is she really that bad?”
            It can’t be a coincidence that the lyrics, “she’s like a spider waiting for the kill” coincide with her shadow suddenly appearing outside the door.  From what we can see of her, yes, she does indeed look like a big, furry, dangerous tarantula.  With the words, “Look out for Cruella DeVil” ringing through our heads as our only warning, Anita still says, “Let her in, Nanny.”  And even though Miss DeVil rang the buzzer quite insistently, she still doesn’t wait to be allowed in before bursting onto the scene with a wide, “Anita dahling!  Miserable dahling, as usual, perfectly wretched.”
            And just like that, one of the most iconic Disney characters (not just of the Disney villains either) has been introduced to the world.  With a sharp angular face with cheekbones that are unforgivably triangular, she looks more like a corpse than a spoiled aristocrat swimming in old money.  Cruella DeVil was the swan song for animator, Marc Davis, but what a way to cap off his career.  But I have to say, just as any parent would be absolutely crazy to name their kid Damien after watching The Omen, who in the world would be friends with someone named Cruella DeVil?  I mean, there’s no way that person can ever be right with a name like that. 
            As if this needs to be stated, but this film was obviously made before the advent of PETA (it could possibly be a reason that PETA was founded in the first place) because the majority of women in the film still found fur coats to be the pinnacle of fashion.  The way that Cruella fluffs her coat and gathers it close to her neck… well, when she said that furs were her only true love, it was this scene that made the audience believe it.  But her upscale attitude and larger than life demeanor masks the biggest temper and a void in her chest where her heart should be.  All of this has made her one of Disney’s more terrifying villains.
            Why is she so scary?  Because the possibility of a villain like her feels like a proposition that could happen in real life.  Probably not in as outlandish manner as the movie, but someone who has a complete disregard for life when it comes to personal gain is something that we know is evident in the world today.  I mean for crying out loud, she looks at a litter of newborn puppies and doesn’t see baby animals; she’s sizing up how many coats she could get out of fifteen.  She doesn’t see the family that loves these newborns and doesn’t see that their value is far beyond anything monetary. 
            Betty Lou Gerson was the voice of Cruella; she was practically unrecognizable from her role as the narrator in Cinderella.  Without a hitch whatsoever, she manages to bring sophistication to Cruella as well as that trademark smoker’s rasp.  She can go from cackling maniacally at the expense of others to shouting “idiots” at the top of her lungs without missing a beat.  With so much conviction, Gerson conveys to the audience that Cruella wants but one thing and she will not stop until she gets it.

            What she wants are fur coats that no one else had thought of before: Dalmatian dog skin.  But seeing as how the adult fur is too coarse to be appealing, she logically deduces that puppies would be ideal.  Of course, to make a fur garment of any substantial size she’s going to need to get her hands on some puppies.  Lots and lots of puppies.

            Enter our ninety-nine plus two Dalmatians.  This is only Disney’s second dog feature following Lady and the Tramp, but with this film they established themselves as masters of the canine form.  There’s such a massive cast of dogs in this film, and not just Dalmatian dogs either.  There are Great Danes, Terriers, Collies, Labradors, Sheep dogs, Blood Hounds, Afghan Hounds, Poodles, and Pugs.  One piece of animation I really liked was the Collie that guided Pongo and Perdita through the snowstorm.  I thought that they captured the essence of the breed while adding a nobility and grace to his character in the way that he moved and spoke.
This scene was one of Ollie Johnston's favorites.
            Of course, for channeling straight up dog behavior, no scene tops the one where Pongo and Perdita crash through the window of the DeVil house ready to take a bite out of some Bad’uns.  I know that Horace and Jasper are supposed to provide a great amount of the comic relief for this film, but it’s hard for me to feel bad for them when Perdita pushes Horace into the fireplace.  After all, they both were looking forward to popping off and skinning ninety-nine innocent puppies.  When Pongo takes a bite out of Jasper, it’s a father talking back to his children’s captors, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

            Some of the best character animation happened during the scenes featuring the Captain, the Sergeant, and the Colonel.  I feel like not many people talk about these three characters, but they are crucial to the plot for finding the fifteen stolen puppies.  A lot of the action sequences happened with Sergeant Tibs trying to save the puppies from the Bad’uns in “Hell Hall” with the Colonel (voiced by J. Pat O’Malley, who also voiced Jasper) watching from the safety of the outside window.  Even though he was a cat, Tibs was the perfect embodiment of the earnest young sergeant doing his best to please his superiors.  Looks like cats have come a long way since Si and Am in Lady and the Tramp.

            There are even a couple of cameos from Lady and the Tramp.  Jock appears during the amazing Twilight Bark sequence.  In the pet shop window, Bull and Peg from the pound start barking along with the puppies.  And out in the street we catch a brief glimpse of Lady and possibly Tramp who jumps on top of a truck.
            Though this film excelled at animating dogs, what I’ve really come to appreciate is their treatment of cars.  This wasn’t their first foray into rotoscoping; Stromboli’s cart in Pinocchio was their first real attempt at the technique.  Here in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, though, they took it to the next level.  Cruella’s car alone verges on becoming its own character, or, at the very least, an extension of Cruella.  What really grabbed me this time around was how the front of her car almost resembles a face.  The headlights have this strange slanted line running across both of them, almost creating a car version of angry and tense looking eyebrows.
            The climax was interesting and a bit of a departure from what came before.  Lady and the Tramp also culminated in a chase sequence, but there are more vehicles involved in One Hundred and One Dalmatians: Cruella’s town car, Horace and Jasper’s truck that’s on the verge of falling apart, and the van unknowingly taking Pongo, Perdita, and their puppies back to the safety of London.  What makes this interesting is that our protagonists, the Dalmatians, have little to no control over their fate.  They’re trapped in the back of this van and there’s nothing that they can do about Cruella and her goons.  All they can do is watch and hope that maybe things will work out.  This is different from previous Disney films when the climax usually involved the protagonist being an active participant in how their lives will go.

            Fortunately, things work out pretty well for our spotty heroes.  It’s Jasper and Horace’s bungling that leads to Cruella’s failure to catch the van.  So in a way this is one of the few Disney films where the villains are defeated by their own choices. Cruella’s downfall came about by means of her own insanity.  It’s sort of a poetic end for such a memorable villain, I think. 
Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

            So memorable was she, that in 1996 Disney decided to revisit this story in a new way: a live action remake called 101 Dalmatians.  I was about ten or eleven when this film came out and I remember a lot of the hype that was surrounding it.  The source of almost all of it came from the woman who had agreed to take on the iconic role of Miss DeVil: an actress who is no stranger to playing psychotic women, Glenn Close.  I do have to say that the film is worth at least one viewing just to see her performance. 
But for me, the most memorable part of this film was seeing the great British character actor, Hugh Laurie, play Jasper.  I remember watching an interview they did with him before the film came out, and he mentioned how bad he felt when he had to pick up the puppies by the back of their necks.  He said that he just wanted to apologize to each of them after every take.  Considering the kind of character that he plays on House, I find this adorable.
The film proved to be very popular and revitalized a strong interest in the original animated film.  So much so that Disney commissioned a new animated series called 101 Dalmatians: The Series, which was about the puppies’ life on their “Dalmatian Plantation.” The live action film even spawned a sequel, which was cleverly titled 102 Dalmatians.  Not nearly as strong as its predecessor, about the most noteworthy thing I can say of it is that this is where actor Ioan Gruffudd met his future wife, Alice Evans.  Soemthing unfortunate and unintentional came about from the live action film too; Dalmatians became a hugely popular dog breed overnight.  So much so that they have been bred into stupidity (they aren’t that smart anymore) and many of them wound up in animal shelters because people didn’t know how much natural high energy Dalmatians have.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a must see Disney film if you are any sort of a Disney fan.  It was the start of the use of the Xerox process in animation, something that would influence the look of Disney animation for several years.  It also has several touching moments that are classically Disney.  But above all, it introduced us to one of the all time great villains of cinema history.  And now, a word from our sponsors:
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  1. While it's a shame that the rest of the next ten years fell on the crutch of the Xerox process (sometimes to the detriment of the film's style), the look for Dalmatians is fantastic. I really respond to the graphic style employed here, signaling the modernity, in the same way that Sleeping Beauty's classical style embodied its time. The backgrounds are interesting, the few songs are fun. Is this the first time we see a television in a Disney film? All the TV stuff works well. I love the Kanine Krunchies ad, as well as the "What's My Crime" game show, a gag that is unfortunately lost on most young modern audiences.

    The rotoscoping is mostly successful, though some of those shots in the snowbank just feel off, mostly because things like snow don't scale well (it was a model). And the ending is a bit of a disappointment when Cruella is only sort of foiled; her car crashes, and that's it. What's to stop her from finding them on their Dalmatian Plantation?

    The live action version is definitely worth seeing; it's a different take and I like that the dogs don't talk in it. Unfortunately some of it devolves into unnecessary slapstick courtesy of John Hughes, who I believe scripted the film. This was in the days when he just made movies where adults are tortured in cartoony ways (Home Alone, Baby's Day Out). Thank you for pointing out Hugh Laurie's performance though. I love him as Jasper. He and Mark Williams (Horace) had great rapport and some of the best dialogue in the film. Really, if you only know Laurie from House, check out some of his other comedic work. This film is a great start.

    Just to mention one of my favorite moments, the birth scene. First there's the bit of comedy with Roger and his pipe, then we get that moment where one (presumably Lucky) seems to be dead. It's tense and dramatic, if only for a little bit. It's also a clever way of making us root for the puppies living right away, because the whole plot will revolve around it.

    I said before I'm not a dog person, but this is a worthwhile film anyway. It's a great "escape movie". Oh, and as to the Twilight Bark, there's a great callback to it in the Teacher's Pet movie, a film I expected to hate but really enjoyed.

  2. The beginning of this look signaled a definite change in the animation style. I have to agree it was quite jarring to go from Sleeping Beauty to 101 Dalmatians, especially since I watched them back to back.

    I've gotta talk about "Cruella DeVile" for a couple reasons. For one, I love it's jazzy style. It's so much fun to sing. I think what makes it really enjoyable though is that you get to see Roger and Anita as a playful, loving married couple.

    As for Cruella herself, Disney made one heck of a villain you can love to hate. Her insanity shows how something you love can turn into an obsession. Horace and Jasper are more comic relief in the fact that I crack up when they get hurt.

    I love the way that the dogs considered the humans their pets. It seemed like a bit of an evolution from Lady and the Tramp in that way. I always remember Jock going "After all, a dog's best friend is his human."

    I love Lucky. He's a fighter from the start. Plus it's adorable when he's saying "My nose is froze. And my tail is froze. And my ears are froze. And my toes are froze." He seems so cute and snuggly.

    I haven't seen the live action version in a long time, so I'll have to watch it again soon. Plus I never realized that Hugh Laurie was in it. I also remember watching the animated show when I was younger.

    The film is great and is Disney's second film where dogs are the main focus. This would happen again later with Oliver and Company. The film is a great starter to the 60s and I love the feel that it gives off.

  3. I think one of the most notable things about this movie is how up-front it is about taking place in "modern times". There are very few Disney films that were set in the time they were made ("101 Dalmations", with 'modern woman' Anita, the bohemian painter, the pop-art style; "The Rescuers'" scenes at the United Nations/Rescue Aid Society, where we can catch a glimpse of period cars and characteristically '70s workwear and "Oliver & Co.", with Jenny's distinctive '80s wardrobe, a bunch of strays stealing those removable car radios of the day, and gritty '80s NYC are the only ones that come to mind). Interesting, as all three of these films are somehow liked (Madame Medusa replaced Cruella as the villain in "The Rescuers", of which "Oliver" was origially slated to be a sequel).

    We had this film on VHS and one of my sisters watched it obsessively. Now that I understand the 'What's My Crime?' gag, I find that scene riotously funny. Cruella is both funny ("You imbeciles!") and scary at the same time. She was another terrifying entry in the canon of Disney villains who could really exist in real life (though she's a more sensational contribution to the genre). I was kind of hoping for a more satisfying end for Cruella--anyone who could look at a puppy and think 'fur coat' deserves a truly gruesome end.