101 Dalmatians (1961)
Release Date: January 25th, 1961 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi Actors: Rod Taylor, Ben Wright, J. Pat O’Malley, Cate Bauer, Betty Lou Gerson
ongo (Rod Taylor) wiles away his bachelor life peering through the window of his flat, looking for the perfect match for his pet Roger. Pongo is, of course, a picturesque Dalmatian, and Roger is a workaholic human musician. When Pongo spies a beautiful female dog accompanied by an equally handsome female human specimen, he tricks Roger into taking him for a walk to the park. With a little luck and some old-fashioned charm, Roger and Anita (Lisa Davis) are soon married, as are Pongo and his newfound love, Perdita. Not long after that, the perfect dog couple awaits the birth of their first litter.
Pongo becomes the proud father of 15 cute little puppies, and the entire family couldn’t be happier. That is until Anita’s old schoolmate Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson) shows up, demanding to purchase the puppies. Roger timidly refuses, forcing the wicked Cruella to hire bumbling thieves Horace and Jasper to kidnap the newborns. Pongo and Perdita find themselves depending on the legendary Twilight Bark, a chain of dogs scattered throughout London that sends news back and forth via yipping, yapping, and howling. Setting out on a trying adventure, the two desperate Dalmatians must figure out how to rescue not only their own children, but also dozens of additional puppies that have all been acquired for Cruella’s dastardly plot of making dogskin coats.
Celebrated writer Bill Peet (who also worked on “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Peter Pan” for Disney) penned the masterly story, revealing a plot that fits together flawlessly. As with most of Disney’s animated features, the animals take the place of humans in the lead roles – “101 Dalmatians” takes this a step further with narration by the dog, which lovingly dubs his owner the “pet.” The super intelligent animals must take charge and enlist clever tactics to outwit the nimble-minded human antagonists, namely Jasper and Horace, who rarely pose a real threat.
Cruella De Vil, on the other hand, is one of the finest villains ever to grace an animated feature – as well as one of the most memorable evildoers in the entirety of cinema. Always followed by the catchy tune Roger devised, the intimidatory Cruella utters unspeakably horrifying retorts about skinning the puppies and favors the words “idiot” and “imbecile” when shouting at her clumsy partners-in-crime. Her design is magnificently menacing, with black-widow-spindly arms and legs and a monstrous fur coat, encircling her like the green smoke that billows out of her odious cigarettes. Her face is emblazoned with a permanent sneer and her towering black and white painted hair teeters about her unforgettable physique (later done up in three dimensions by actress Glenn Close in the live-action remake).
“The humans have tried everything – now it’s up to us dogs,” says Danny, a member of the Twilight Bark, who passes on the word to the Colonel, the Captain, and Sgt. Tibbs. This hilarious supporting trio attempts to command order and discipline between a dog, a horse, and a scrawny cat, while they aid in the great escape that sees 99 puppies trekking across harsh terrains and freezing winds. The Colonel continuously shouts grossly uncalculated orders to his comrades (which is perhaps a subtle commentary on the army), before being corrected by Tibbs, who diplomatically mentions the more strategic way of maneuvering the legion of Dalmatians.
It was released in 1961 and yet the look is sharp and clean, matching the same outstanding caliber of Disney’s newer animated efforts. “101 Dalmatians” is a must-see film that was visually ahead of its time, holding up surprisingly well even in comparison to more contemporary traditionally animated works. With such a timeless story (managing to still squeeze in two songs amidst the action), family-friendly humor, and singular character designs, its overall presentation and execution trump just about everything CG equivalents or copycats have to offer.
– Mike Massie