No dog’s better than Dad.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1960)

Anne: And now we come to a movie for which I have actually read the source material…which will have no bearing on my review of the film adaptation since I remember nothing except the author’s name. (Besides, if we’re talking Dodie Smith books, wouldn’t everyone rather have I Capture the Castle?)

Anyway. 101 Dalmatians is a splendid, sophisticated movie that is just jam-packed with interesting animation, exciting action, and quirky well-rounded characters. The style of animation couldn’t be any further from Sleeping Beauty, and yet both films give an impression of moving artwork. In the earlier film, it was 14th-century tapestries, and in this film, it’s book illustrations–hardly surprising given that children’s book author and illustrator Bill Peet was at the helm (I feel like his books played a big role in my childhood, but the only one that’s sounding familiar upon further research is Chester the Worldly Pig). The sketch-like quality of the animation gives every frame a lot of texture and movement.

I love the children’s-book-illustration version of London that houses the Radcliffes and their pets (or is it the other way around–that is, the Pongos and their pets?). A world in which struggling songwriters live in adorably quirky flats with lots of spare brass instruments lying around, and people really do look like their animals.

And it’s a world in which when Scotland Yard and all the other human police services fail to track down two incredibly bumbling thugs with a truckload of puppies, the dog population implements the Twilight Bark, sending messages all the way out to the country. As in Lady and the Tramp, we don’t just see well-to-do city dogs–we see farm dogs and dogs belonging to grocers in the suburbs. Once again, the voicing of the canine characters is inspired; I particularly liked the collie and of course, the Colonel, voiced by our old friend J. Pat O’Malley.

15 spotted puddles stolen? Ridiculous.

The dogs (and their sidekicks–Lucy the Duck, a resourceful cat named Colonel Tibbs, a stable full of generous cows, to name a few) look out for each other and join forces to get the Pongo family plus 84 other Dalmatians back to London. There aren’t any villainous animals in this story; the dog world is apparently one in which you can count on and trust just about anyone.

The same can definitely not be said for the human world. Has there ever been a more despicable villain than Cruella De Vil? I mean, think about it. All the villains do pretty evil things, but Cruella De Vil wants to KILL PUPPIES and MAKE COATS OUT OF THEM.

NO SPOTS! NO SPOTS AT ALL!

I have to wonder if Cruella was markedly different as a girl, otherwise what on earth drew Anita to this character in the first place? We’re told that she’s Anita’s old school friend, but I can hardly imagine quiet, bookish Anita hanging out with that monster, can you?

It’s not really worth contemplating too much, since the point is that she’s evil now. Roger writes a song about how creepy she is, and she lives up to every word. We mostly see her lying around in her dressing gown or furs and smoking. Smoking a lot. Could a Disney movie be made now with that kind much smoking? Probably not.

Okay, I’m rambling a little now, so I’ll turn it over to James.

James: The animation is mostly very fun: definitely not as downright beautiful as Sleeping Beauty, but often just as graceful, within an entirely different style. The storybook-like illustrations allow for cheaper artwork, but animated at a high enough rate and with enough flare to make for a fascinating combination of smoothness and roughness. Furthermore, the easier animation style means that the foreground more often matches the background than in previous films. For about the first time in a Disney film, it’s hard to tell what’s static and what’s going to move, because it all blends so well together. As Anne said, it’s like the pictures in a children’s book have come to life.

And yet, it’s not flawless. The mouths often don’t match the dialogue as well as they have in the past, and when the animation changes perspective there’s sometimes a severe incongruity between images. For example this:

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is immediately followed by this:

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This is the sharpest and quickest contrast in the film, but there’s inconsistency elsewhere through the film as to how storybook and how cartoony it’s supposed to look. The cows in particular look much more like typical Disney cartoon characters than the others, and some of the dogs are lifted straight from Lady and the Tramp! Still, the Dalmatians all move pretty consistently, as do the human characters. You believe the leads as book characters, and that’s the important thing. Cruella in particular has a fabulous design and movement; I love how she’s kind of thin and frail, only built up to an intimidating shape by the enormous coat she wears.

Much as with Maleficent, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding Cruella and her motivations when you start thinking about it. Villains like this surely don’t start out fully formed, they have to become that way, right? I suppose that’s why after the upcoming Maleficent we’ll be getting a live action Cruella movie (I personally can’t wait until we get a live action Ratigan origin story.)

Not you though, Ms Close. Sorry.

But, as Anne said, she’s evil now. And a particular kind of evil, not one that takes enjoyment in suffering but one that has no consideration for such basic human concepts as compassion and, you know, NOT KILLING PUPPIES. More a sociopath than a maniac, but still detestable in her current form. Could one possibly reason with her and try to convince her that what she’s doing is wrong? At least Jasper and Horace seem to understand their crimes, but Cruella just doesn’t care. That’s a fabulous change to the usual villain rota, even the more comedic ones (like Hook).

Oh, and she is comedic. Cruella is a wonderful character, both funny and a real threat to our protagonists. Captain Hook didn’t become genuinely threatening until the end of Peter Pan, but through Pongo and Perdita’s early established fear we are able to recognise the danger the puppies are in by Cruella simply existing. She can steal the puppies, and she can and will kill them.

She’s part of large ensemble of wonderfully drawn characters. The first half of the film establishes the Pongos and the Radcliffes as eminently compatible yet distinct people (and dogs). The courtship as it plays out makes perfect sense for all four characters, and culminates at the ten minute mark with an oh so adorable (yet earned) double wedding. Cruella and her henchmen are easily understood and well presented, and great fun to watch to boot. However, the film’s true strength lies in the wealth of characters Pongo and Perdita meet on their rescue mission. Each dog (and cat) is vivid and distinct, and very, very funny. So much effort has gone into making the dog society a vibrant world filled with real characters with unique identities. For example, at the 51 second mark:

Danny and Scottie are only in the film for a minute (and Danny is in it again for another minute later in the film), but they are so real, and so much fun. I could watch an entire film about those two, and there’s mileage in each of the characters we see briefly along the Twilight Bark. A mark of the excellent world building is Prissy, the artist’s look-alike-dog, who is established in the first scene, returns in the park scene, and then eagerly takes her part in the barking chain when she’s needed (much to her owner’s chagrin). This really feels like a world in which every dog plays their part, in which every character matters.

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Anne: Oh, I don’t think they used the dogs from Lady and the Tramp because they couldn’t or didn’t have the time or money to come up with new dogs. It seems more like an homage to the earlier film to me. Especially since they didn’t use just any dogs, they used Jock, Peg and the bulldog, all of whom have significant screen-time and would be recognized by any Lady and the Tramp fan. (I gasped when I saw Peg in the shop window. That is one distinctive dog!)

I think this is the first film we’ve watched where I’ve got something substantive to say about the credit sequence (other than, wow, this song is AWFUL…*coughIchabodcoughcough*). It’s funny, whimsical and jazzy, and it hearkens back to the package films where a single shape or visual theme was animated to the tune of an existing piece of music. In this case, it’s the dalmatian spot, which gets plopped all over the screen and manipulated, and even turned into unexpected images, like this one:

Maybe Roger should write his music this way...

Maybe Roger should write his music this way…

The abstract shapes, upbeat jazzy soundtrack and even sound effects (notably the typewriter, and the sort of mechanical scene-changing sounds) all serve to place us squarely in a contemporary setting–perhaps not the exact present, but a world with telephones and word processing and fast cars. It occurs to me that we haven’t seen a Disney movie set in the present…well, EVER…with the possible exception of “All the Cats Join In” and one or two other segments in the musical package films. I like that the filmmakers took this credit sequence as an opportunity to engage the audience before the action even started; we weren’t sure if it was actually longer than previous Disney credits, or if it just felt longer (in the best sense) because we wanted to see what the animators would come up with next.

Ummm…where to go next…oh! I did want to mention how much I loved the art direction in this film. Okay, yes, I know there wouldn’t be an art director on an animated film–they don’t need to go around finding all the period artifacts and dressing the set with appropriate props–but some of the interiors were so marvelously specific. Like this shot of Roger’s bachelor pad:

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And then of course when Roger and Anita get married, all of that tumult gets smushed into one little room.

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I didn’t want to clog this up with too many images, but there’s also a moment just after Horace and Jasper leave the house with the puppies and Nanny is shouting out the attic window–and next to her in the dark you can see a set of golf clubs. Because of course that’s where the golf clubs would be kept.

I was also struck by the specificity of Cruella De Vil’s boudoir. These interiors tell us so much about the characters, and the little details give them an incredible depth. And they’re all things that aren’t referred to explicitly or even mentioned out loud in dialogue. I mean, look at that bowl of cigarette butts, the uncorked bottles on the nightstand, the stockings and shoes strewn everywhere. The painting on the wall is crooked. Even if we didn’t know from her actions that Cruella was reckless and impulsive (well, I guess at this point in the film we don’t know the half of it yet!), we could read it in the state of her bedroom.

Granted, I don't do much better myself at keeping my room clean...

Granted, I don’t do much better myself at keeping my room clean…

There was something to notice in every scene. We loved the fact that after Cruella’s first entrance, Pongo and Perdita had an important conversation under a cabinet–because dogs can do that. (Though I seem to recall spending a lot of time playing board games under the dining room table at a friend’s house growing up…but never never mind.) In fact, I think I may have to watch the movie again and just pay attention to the interiors and what’s in them.

James: I’m going to take a moment now to talk about the accents. First, it’s nice that it’s still set in London. Disney could have transposed the entire story to, say, New York (I’ve been watching a lot of Elementary lately) without fundamentally changing the characters or the story. It would have been more relatable to the primary American audience, and it would have been easier to cast the Disney regulars. Even if they hadn’t transposed it geographically, they could still have made the dogs American; only the humans would need to sound English for the story to be realistic, dogs speak Dog anyway. So it’s nice that it’s firmly based in London, with the story sprawling our damp little island, and the network of dogs is allowed to feel like it’s nationwide.

However, those accents… Okay, so most of the main ones are fine. The Radcliffes (I still want to call them the Dearlys, as per the original!) and Perdita all sound very good (all natural English accents). Betty Lou Gerson is American, but plays Cruella with a very heightened Posh English accent, which matches her heightened, fashion obsessed persona. However, Pongo is Australian. At times more so than others, but it’s very definitely there. The puppies especially sound almost uniformly American, a result I presume of casting children within reasonable distance of the California studios. It’s a shame, though, that the studio were able to film whole pictures in the UK yet couldn’t set up a recording studio over here to capture half a dozen children’s voices.

It’s also a pity that, for a story featuring characters across the country, the accents are so limited. There’s all sorts of accents they could have thrown into this story (where’s Cyril Proudbottom when you need him?), but they’re almost all RP or Cockney. There’s an amazing wealth of accents in our tiny island, some deep, some beautiful, and pretty much all hilarious. To prove it, here’s Patrick Stewart:

Actually, that proves very little. But who doesn’t love Patrick Stewart?

One final criticism: some of this film is downright daft. The scene where Lucky has ‘died’ and is resuscitated is ridiculous and, in the grand scheme of things, unnecessary (why does he need to be lucky anyway?). That the henchmen know about the hole in the wall through which animals can escape and don’t cover it up is insane (even for idiot henchmen). There’s also no reason for Cruella to have kept the dogs alive this long at all; why not kill them as soon as she gets them? Would the Radcliffes really be that happy to find themselves having to support 101 dogs? How exactly does defeating Cruella once stop her from kidnapping them again, or just killing other dogs? Are dalmatians covered in soot really indistinguishable from labradors? How did Roger sell a song about a real woman referring to her as a devil and NOT get sued for libel? And in the film’s crowning moment of silliness, there is a cake that exists solely for this purpose:

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This film is ridiculous. But, goshdarnit, I loved it. It’s funny. It’s lively. It’s energetic. It’s packed. It is an imperfect film but a real delight. It’s absolutely packed with humour from almost all characters, starting with the subtle humour of Pongo’s view of humans (and by extension the outlook of all dogs) and moving through Cruella’s manic insensitivity and Roger’s joyous teasing to the perfect mismatching of all the dogs our protagonists meet. There’s some fabulously funny lines too, particularly from Captain and Sgt. Tibbs. A particular favourite of mine was the mistranslation of the Twilight Bark: ’15 spotted puddles stolen? Oh, balderdash.’ ‘Better double check it, Colonel.’

(There’s also some delightful humour for the adults, such as when Anita asks about the puppies ‘Well where did they all come from?’, and Roger replies ‘Oh, Pongo, you old rascal!’. Not a gag for the kids.)

It's been like two days. How bad is Roger's biology knowledge?

It’s been like two days. How bad is Roger’s biology knowledge?

Anne: I think Roger and Anita are the only two people in the world who would be thrilled to move to the country and buy a Dalmatian Plantation (see what I did there?) with their earnings from the sale of “Cruella De Vil.” Good thing they found one another, eh?

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Most people wouldn’t even consider keeping all fifteen of the original puppies. But then, the world of 101 Dalmatians is a world in which dogs have the same connection to their children as humans do, and separating Pongo and Perdita from any of their puppies would be a monstrous, unthinkable atrocity. Or maybe that’s just how Roger and Anita roll, and anybody else would consider that a little nuts. Either way, I’m not too fussed about logic.

You know, I don’t think we’re ever going to see a perfect film, but 101 Dalmatians comes pretty darn close for me. I want to live in the sketchbook alternate-reality Disney imagination version of London and have tea with the Radcliffes and their dogs and their dogs’s friends–and that’s the highest praise I can give. 9/10.

James: This film was an absolute treat (treat! ha!), full of real humour and real heart. The ridiculous elements of the plot don’t matter because the world is so much fun that you can just buy it. The characters are vivid and the interactions are delightful. The pacing is much better than, say, Sleeping Beauty, although it could still be tightened a bit in the first half. I’m tempted to deduct half a point for the accents… but to heck with it. 9/10.

Besides, without this film we probably wouldn’t have had The Simpsons: Two Dozen and One Greyhounds:

Got to give it credit for that.

Anne: Next on our list is The Sword in the Stone. Since the last time I saw this movie, I read and loved The Once and Future King, so it will be interesting to revisit it!

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