Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Rod Taylor, J. Pat O'Malley, Betty Lou Gerson, Martha Wentworth, Ben Wright, Cate Bauer, David Frankham, Frederick Worlock, Lisa Davis
Written by: Bill Peet, based on a novel by Dodie Smith
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton S. Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 79
Date: 01/25/1961

101 Dalmatians (1961)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sweet Spots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

101 Dalmatians was made toward the end of Walt Disney's reign at the head of the studio (he died five years later), but it also marked a fairly fresh take on the studio's animated output. Firstly, it was made with a new, much cheaper animation process, and the result is slightly sketchier (the seams show a bit), but also very lively. The rougher quality makes it feel more comfortable, more lived-in. And then, secondly, there's Cruella.

Cruella De Vil (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson) is arguably the most potent villain in the entire Disney canon. One of her first lines is -- in response to "how are you?" -- is "Miserable, darling, as usual, perfectly wretched." Even though her face turns into a demonic mask in one terrifying shot, she's not a supernatural character. She's not a witch or anything, though, like Jason Voorhees, minor defeats do not deter her. She keeps coming back.

She's tall and spindly, all sharp angles, with dangerous-looking cheekbones, and hair that's black on one side and white on the other. She smokes a cigarette in an equally spindly-looking holder. Her entire goal in life is to skin dalmatian puppies and make spotted fur coats out of them. Not even grown-up dogs. Puppies. That's about as low as you can get.

The plot begins with Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor), an adult dalmatian who lives with his "pet," a human songwriter named Roger (voiced by Ben Wright). Pongo decides it's time to stop being bachelors, and spots a pretty female dalmatian being walked by a pretty female human, and arranges his own "meet-cute" in the park. The movie begins this way, by the way. Usually this is the end.

Pongo and his doggie bride Perdita (voiced by Cate Bauer) have puppies, which Cruella expects to buy. Roger somewhat boldly announces that the puppies are not for sale, so Cruella arranges for her two dopey henchmen to steal them. They have also stolen 84 other dalmatians, making 99 puppies in all, plus Pongo and Perdita, for a total of 101. The rest of the movie is a long escape sequence through a wintry landscape, aided by several other pets along the way, and with Cruella hot on the trail in her swerving, speeding stretch limo.

It's a brisk 79 minutes, and like the best of the Disney features, it packs this compact running time with plenty of thrills and laughs, as well as the odd, subversive twist. One puppy stares, slack-jawed, at any nearby television set, and the shows that play on it range from classic Disney cartoons to stranger stuff. It may not be one of Disney's more magical films, but it's definitely one of the most flat-out entertaining.

In 2015, Disney released a new Diamond Edition, with a Blu-ray disc, a DVD, and a digital copy. Blu-ray quality probably won't blow away die-hard technophiles, but it looked pretty solid to these eyes. Extras include a new, 2-minute animated cartoon, about the television dog Thunderbolt. There are some kid-friendly extras (a noisy featurette hosted by Cameron Boyce), and some more grown-up ones for folks interested in the behind-the-scenes. Another fascinating one shares the friendship and correspondence between Disney and author Dodie Smith, which lasted well after the movie was completed. Plus the old extras from the DVD release (including Selena Gomez singing the "Cruella De Vil" song) are all here.

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