Disney usually likes to adapt stories which are already well known. As a result, I often know the books already when I watched the Disney movie, or at the very least I read the book at some point during my childhood and can therefore remember how I experienced it when I still looked at literature with a more uncritical eye. This was not the case with 101 Dalmatians. I read the book just for this article series. Which is in the case of 101 Dalmatians kind of a problem, because I can’t look at it from the perspective of the actual target group. I tried my best not to be overly critical but – well, let’s just dive into this.
1. The Setting
Most Disney movies are very vague concerning the time and place in which they are set. But 101 Dalmatians is very current. And with “current” I mean 1961. It is easy to forget because time has given the movie a different vibe. Nowadays it feels like watching a fairy tale like story which just happens to be set in the London during a time long gone bye, but back when the movie first hit the theatres, that was the reality. The TV program which is affectionately spoofed during the movie is the one they watched, their telephones looked like this and that was the kind of music they like to hear.
2. The Animation
101 Dalmatians marks an important milestone in animation. For the better or the worse, this was the first animated movie which used xenography forcing a style on the movies Disney himself didn’t really like. It was a technology born out of the necessity to lower the production costs. Because of this, there is this tendency to look down on the animation of the Impressionist era. In case of 101 Dalmatians, though, it pays off to take a second look, and not just because animating all those puppies was quite an impressive achievement back then. Especially remarkable is the scene at the very beginning, when Pongo is watching the dog owners on the street. They not only have all a very distinctive look, they also all move differently. It’s a fascinating study in animation to compare how much the different movements influence the perception of the characters.
3. The Characters
To say it upfront: I have a huge problem with the characters in the book. Mainly, with the way Missus Pongo and Perdita are portrayed. That’s right, Disney merged two character into one, Perdita in the book is not Pongo’s wife, she is taken into the family to help nursing the pups since 15 are simply too much for one mother. What angers me about both characters in the book, but especially about Missus Pongo, is how stupid they both are. In the book it’s constantly pointed out that Pongo is unusual intelligent for a dog. And he constantly talks down to her and acts amused when she says something naïve. This is bad enough, but on their journey (during which is constantly pointed out that females are weaker) they meet other (male) dogs, and on more than one occasion, Pongo and another dog act indulgent about Missus Pongo. It’s aggravating, and honestly destroyed any enjoyment I might have had reading this book.
The characters in the Disney version are not necessarily layered, but they are more balanced overall. It certainly helps that Disney slimmed down the cast considerably. Two Nanny’s become one, the husband and the cat of Cruella de Vil are omitted, and Lucky become the puppy who nearly did during birth instead of two separate characters. The idea that pets become similar to their owners (or the other way around) is picked up, making Pongo and Perdita mirrors of their human counterparts. And honestly, I quite like Roger and Anita. While it’s never explicitly stated, I always got the impression that Anita is a working woman with her own income, the mind in the relationship, while Roger the musician is the heart and the humour. That is a clever change, too, by the way, in the book they are rich from the get go, in the movie the little side-story with Rogers successful hit not only allows Disney to add some music into the mix, it also gives the human characters their own little arc.
One has to give it to the book: It is obviously written by someone who loves dogs dearly. Their habits are described more realistic than the way the humans act. Again and again it is mentioned that dogs see their humans as their pets. The downside is that there is much care put in the portrayal of the humans. I prefer the more realistic way Disney approached the human characters, and that Pongo and Perdita are equals in every sense of the word, working together to get their puppies back.
4. The Plot
I was actually very surprised how much in the movie is based on the book. This might be the most faithful adaptation Disney has ever done. The way Cruella de Vil is designed, the show “What is my crime”, the way the dogs communicate with each other, all that is actually straight from the source. What Disney did was exaggerating at the right places (for example the dogs don’t wake up all the humans when they send the message in the book), tighten the story a little bit (by making the actual travel shorter) and adding a little bit more suspense, more scenes in which the dogs are nearly caught. The scene when they sneak into the truck is slightly adjusted, and done really perfectly in the Disney version. First the suspenseful time until they are all in the relative safety of the truck, than the dangerous chase with Cruella right behind them, it just works.
It is, though, a little bit of a dissatisfying ending for a villain. In the book, the dogs destroy all the furs in Cruella’s house before they go home, hence destroying the business of her husband (who is a fur maker) and forcing them to flee the country to get away from their debt. The Disney version more or less forgets about the villain as soon as her car is destroyed. But all in all, there isn’t much to say about the Plot, neither in the book nor in the movie. It’s a cute little story, one Disney tells with the necessary seriously. But it’s not exactly a big epic. It isn’t supposed to be.
5. The Soundtrack
Technically there are three songs in the movie, all of them justified, but only one is designed to move the plot forward. The “Kanine Krunchies Jingle”, which is played on TV, is a nice little dig at advertising and mostly provides some background noise in order to add realism to the scene (as realistic as a TV program for dogs can be), and “Dalmatian Plantation”, which is played by Roger in the end, is only there to say “look, we all have a happy future now” and serves as very short Conclusion Song. The one stand-out song is “Cruella De Vil”, which Roger “makes up on the spot” and later on becomes a successful hit in-universe.
Cruella De Vil is one of Disney’s stand-out villains, which certainly has a lot to do with her memorable design, the two-coloured hair and this giant fur coat which hides a frail body, but nevertheless dominates every scene. But also with the song with introduces her:
Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you
No evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
She’s like a spider waiting for the kill
Look out for Cruella De Vil…
At this point the audience hasn’t seen Cruella, only her car. But the song gives her a proper announcement. The audience is already prepared to dislike this character, and the moment when her shadow turns up at the door is properly chilly. It is clear, whatever comes is not good. And it isn’t. While Roger keeps making music in the attic (beforehand the melody to his singing comes very settled from the off), a scene plays which confirms his assessment of Cruella De Vil. When she leaves, he comes back and comments the scene the audience just witnessed:
At first you think Cruella is the devil
But after time has worn away the shock
You’ve come to realize
You’ve seen her kind of eyes
Watching you from underneath a rock
Interestingly the song verbally depowers Cruella in those lines. It basically says: Yeah, she is terrifying the first moment, but once you really look at her, she isn’t this terrifying overly powerful creature, she is a danger which can be dealt with. There is a slight foreshadowing in those lines because that is exactly what Roger will do, standing up and demonstrating that her power is limited. It goes exactly as far as you allow it to go. The song then concludes with dehumanizing Cruella, making her therefore an acceptable target of everything which will happen to her in the movie (which is, all things considered not much, unlike other villains her punishment is pretty mild).
This vampire bat
This inhuman beast
She ‘outta be locked up and never released
The world was such a wholesome place until
Cruella, Cruella De Vil
6. The Conclusion
101 Dalmatians is a surprisingly faithful take of the story. It’s not one of the big Disney movies though in my eyes, because it is, like the book, mostly aimed at kids. It’s entertaining but doesn’t even try to be more than that. I like the movie nevertheless. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience, it’s funny and suspenseful, and just a good pick for a snowy night.