Ranking Disney: #13 – 101 Dalmatians (1961)
I know it’s a classic, but on top of that, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (spell it like that. You spell it the other way and you’re talking about the live action version with Glenn Close and Jeff Daniels) is actually a deceptively amazing movie.
I say that because — everyone knows it’s good. But when you watch it, you see just how good it is. There are some amazing moments in the film that are so different from typical Disney. There are barely any songs in the film, which is a rarity for them, but more importantly — there are some tense moments here. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Disney deal with suspense before this. There’s that scene near the end, where the puppies are hiding in the town, before they cover themselves in coal, and Cruella is driving by, looking in all the windows — that’s fucking scary, that moment.
And the film — it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of classic moments in it, but, when you watch the entire film, you do get a really great film.
We open in London, as Pongo narrates how he lives with his human Roger, and how Roger is a songwriter who writes love songs, even though he knows nothing about love.
Pongo decides he’s going to get Roger a girl. He doesn’t know how to judge human women, so he goes by what their dogs look like (since, in this world, the humans and dogs greatly resemble one another).
Pongo spots a beautiful female Dalmatian along with an attractive female owner as well. So he gets Roger to take him into the park and he goes looking for the girl and her dog.
He finds them, and decides it’s up to him to break the ice. So he parades Roger past the two, and there’s a great moment of “looks” from the women. Typically it’s “he looks, she looks,” those glances that let you know they’re into each other. Here, you see the woman glance up at Roger, and the other Dalmatian glance over at Pongo. It’s a great moment.
But just as things are starting to go well – the woman and her dog leave. But Pongo is determined to have Roger and the woman meet, and makes it so they both accidentally get tangled in his leash. And eventually the two fall into the pond and have a great laugh over it together.
And we fade to Roger and the woman getting married, and there’s a great pan down as we see the two dogs also getting “married” outside.
Then we see Roger and Anita and Pongo and Perdita adjusting to their new house. Roger and Anita are visited by Cruella De Vil, an old schoolmate of Anita’s, who wants to see the puppies that Perdita is going to give birth to. Anita reminds her that these things take time (I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Cruella is Veruca Salt all grown up with some Anna Wintour mized in). And Cruella leaves, since all she wants is to buy the puppies (at any price) and kill them and turn them into coats.
Perdita then gives birth to the puppies – fifteen, to be exact – though there is a scare with one of them, but Roger saves it by rubbing it in a blanket, earning it the nickname “Lucky.” Cruella comes by and wants to buy them, but Roger tells her off, saying they’re keeping every puppy.
We then fast forward to the kids more grown up (at least a few weeks), watching a serial western on television, about a hero dog who fights outlaws.
Pongo and Perdita then put the kids to bed and go on their evening walk through the park with Roger and Anita. And while they do that, we find out that Cruella has hired two cockney thieves, Horace and Jasper, to kidnap the puppies. They come to the house, pretending to be from the electric company, and kidnap all the puppies.
Roger and Anita go to Scotland Yard for help, and the case makes the front pages, but Scotland Yard can’t find out who did it. Pongo and Perdita decide to use the “twilight bark,” which is mostly a dog gossip hotline, to ask the other dogs for help. And all the dogs of London bark to one another to be on the lookout, and the barks make their way to the countryside, and Colonel, an old sheepdog, Captain, a horse, and Sgt. Tibbs, a cat. They spot some smoke coming out of the “old De Vil farm,” and check it out.
There, they discover the 15 stolen puppies, along with 84 more, all bought from pet shops around London. They send word back to Pongo and Perdita, who set off for the farm.
Meanwhile, Cruella arrives at the farm and demands that the puppies be killed immediately so she can have the coats. Tibbs overhears this and starts sneaking the puppies out of the house through a hole in the wall, as Horace and Jasper watch “What‘s My Crime?” a show where the contestants have ten questions to guess the unusual attempted crime of a prisoner, and if they cannot do so, the prisoner wins a vacation (after their sentence is up, of course). Horace and Jasper give chase, and eventually lock the puppies in a room, just as Pongo and Perdita arrive at the house. Pongo and Perdita fend off Horace and Jasper as Tibbs leads the puppies outside. They reconvene in a barn and decide to make a run for it, as Horace and Jasper are combing the grounds in their van. They evade the two and make off toward home.
It starts snowing something awful, and the dogs take refuge at a friendly dairy farm. The cows there give all the puppies milk and they all get some sleep. The next day, they start out again, but are spotted by Cruella.
They make it to the next safehouse, where they’ve procured a ride home for them all. Only, Cruella, Horace and Jasper arrive at the village right after they do, and they need to figure out a way to not be spotted. Quite literally, actually.
So they all cover themselves in soot and pretend to be Labradors. They start loading the puppies into the truck, a few at a time, racing to get everyone in before the truck leaves. Just as the last bunch is being put into the truck, some melting snow gives away their disguise to Cruella, Cruella chases down the van, trying to knock it off a cliff.
Though her car ends up colliding with Jasper and Horace’s van, and they all end up with their cars demolished, as the truck with the dogs safely continues back to London.
The dogs end up returning home on Christmas, coincidentally as Roger has made lots of money off his new hit song, “Cruella De Vil.” They count out 101 Dalmatians and Roger sings about how they’ll start a “Dalmatian Plantation.”
I toyed with the notion of putting this after Bambi and Peter Pan, and I really only considered putting it after Pan (and in hindsight, I probably should have. Still can, actually, but I won’t. I like this as #13. I don’t know why), but the reason I decided was mostly because of those few moments that really made me stop and go, “Wow, that’s really terrific.” As opposed to Pan, which, while it definitely wins on the “childhood” scale, and makes the five-year old in me insanely happy, there’s those scenes with the Indians, and that just makes me just sour enough on it to make that 14 instead of 13, while everything else probably dictates that it should be here instead of this.
But even so, we’re quibbling about 13 and 14 out of 51. Obviously they’re both amazing films, and are clearly top 15 all time for Disney. And that’s all we need.
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Official Disney Number: #17
Run Time: 79 minutes
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Budget: $4 million
Box Office: Apparently they made $14 million in their initial run, $144.9 million all time domestically, and $215.9 million worldwide
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- “Cruella De Vil,” performed by Bill Lee
- “Dalmatian Plantation,” performed by Bill Lee
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- Dodie Smith, who wrote the book, secretly hoped Walt would turn it into a Disney film. And when the book came out in 1956, Walt immediately bought the rights to it. Walt gave the film to Bill Peet (marking the first time a single man was left to create the story to a Disney film).
- This is fun, because someone was crazy enough to do this — someone counted every black spot in every frame of the film and came up with 6,469,952.
- They made this on a smaller budget than Sleeping Beauty, since that film flopped at the box office (amazing which Disney films flopped from those days). So they used a lot of photocopying technology on this, and also led to an era (it’s everything between this and The Rescuers) where Disney films had a certain look to them (which IMDB defines as “a scratchy, hard outline look), where — there isn’t that much in terms of — well, you’ll see when we get to the motifs section. These films have similar shots and stuff, but they really stand apart and don’t really repeat a lot of the same stuff the older films do.
- Apparently they designed Cruella as a manic Tallulah Bankhead.
- Characters from Lady and the Tramp cameo in the Twilight Bark scene. (Don’t have any screenshots.)
- Only six of the dalmatians are actually named (which is pretty funny).
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1. Classic Disney house shot:
2. The house from the other end of the street. (See also: The Great Mouse Detective. And others, probably. That’s just the first one that immediately sprung to mind. And also Lady and the Tramp.)
3. The Disney window shot:
4. Characters framed by foliage. Not exactly how they’d normally do it, but still, they are literally framed by foliage, so it counts.
5. Scariest single image in the film. Not tensest. That distinction goes to the scene in the town (#10 on this list). This is just scary as fuck. The puppies are born and it’s happy, and boom, fucking Cruella is just there. And it lightnings out of nowhere. (Also, interesting use of negative coloring here. It’s not really negative coloring as they normally do it, but they do block out everything outside and just highlight her, as well as doing the opposite of that, and only silhouetting her. So I’m calling it good for negative coloring.)
6. First — great shot. They rarely do closeups of stuff like this. Mirrors are always great ways to show things. Also, there’s a very similar shot to this (though not up so close) in Atlantis, as Rourke is driving away and watches them through the mirror of his truck. This just reminded me of that. So let’s call it a reference. Why not?
7. I just wanted to point out that the design of London looks a lot like the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence of Fantasia 2000. I’m not sure (though I doubt it) that the latter is a reference, I just wanted to point it out.
8. If Bambi taught us anything, it’s that if you put a character (specifically an animal) on ice, it’s cute and people will enjoy it.
9. Love me some dawn shots in Disney.
10. I had to include a shot of this, because this is by far the tensest moment in the film. All the sound drops out and all you hear is her car — that’s great filmmaking.
11. You have to mention the fact that they based Medusa’s driving in The Rescuers on Cruella. This shot is just for comparison. (Not that I really need one. It should be obvious if you’ve seen the films.)
12. I love these two shots. First, because there’s a nice juxtaposition of both couples being sad about the theft of the puppies, and also — the first shot — I love that shot. Just the body language of the two — it’s terrific. That’s mostly why this is here. I’ll go for a shot like that every time.
13. Look at these adorable fucks:
14. Cruella got that real sticky icky ICKY!