101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition

The characters from the 1961 Disney animated classic 101 Dalmatians have been working hard in the last decade or so. There was an awful live-action remake starring Glen Close back in 1996 and an even worse sequel to the live-action film in 2000. Confusing things even further, there was a direct-to-DVD animated sequel to the original called 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure. There was also an animated television series that ran for a couple of years starting in 1997. The original film; however, was not readily available, locked in Disney’s vaunted “vault.” It has finally been released on DVD in a new 2-Disc Platinum Edition and puts its many followers to shame. 101 Dalmatians is different from both the Disney animated movies that preceded it and the ones we see today. Although there is a small amount of music, it isn’t a musical and songs don’t figure heavily in the plot. The action takes place in the “present” rather in a mythical kingdom or in London’s past, both standard for Disney animation up to that point. It doesn’t have any name actors as has been typical for Disney since around The Lion King. The look is much more angular and spare than was seen previously due to a new labor saving animation technique, Xerox copying. Everything works wonderfully, though, and it’s a fun, visually stimulating movie to watch.

The fairly simple story, based on a book by Dodie Smith, follows Dalmatians Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) and Perdita (voiced by both Cate Bauer and Lisa Daniels) who help their “pet” humans Roger (Ben Wright) and Anita (Lisa Davis) meet and get married. Perdita quickly has a litter of 15 puppies drawing the attention of Anita’s “old school friend” Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson). De Vil wants the puppies to make a spotted pelt coat but when she is rebuffed by Roger, she sends henchmen Horace (Fredrick Worlock) and Jasper (J. Pat O’Malley) to steal the puppies. Pongo and Perdita search for their babies using the help of animals from London and the countryside in their quest. Eventually, the puppies are tossed in with all the other Dalmatian pups the henchmen have stolen and the dogs try to escape from the henchmen and return home.

The whole movie breezes by in a shockingly quick 79 minutes. There are no “learning moments” that need lengthy explanations. No one really changes or has a story arc that leads to any sort of revelation. Every character is given only the sketchiest of personalities, matching the spare animation style. That helps things stay with the action, humor, and fun that are loaded into the film. Everything works to get the preliminaries done with quickly and have all those cute dogs trying to outwit the dimwitted and sometimes clumsy crooks. The simple plot will help younger viewers keep up with what is happening. In fact, they may recognize key plot points since they were recycled with cats replacing dogs in The Aristocats a few years later.

The most memorable character is, naturally, Cruella De Vil. A force of nature trailing sinister green cigarette smoke everywhere, she is completely over the top in looks, voice, and personality. However, she is actually used somewhat sparingly in the movie. Too much Cruella would wear thin, so she is absent for large chunks with the more immediate villainy left to the less menacing and funnier Horace and Jasper. Every time she returns, it’s a nice kick start to the movie and gets things racing along again. She also inspired one of the better Disney songs of that era, “Cruella De Vil.” It’s not presented in the usual show-stopping Disney way; instead Roger sings it in the attic while Anita and Cruella have a conversation downstairs about the puppies. That’s pretty much the extent of musical breaks in the movie.

As noted, the visual style is less rounded than was used in earlier Disney films or would be recognizable from The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. It has a lot of straight lines and angles, much like Sleeping Beauty but far less elaborate. It’s not bad and they still manage to give the key characters and a few of the puppies a discernable look and expressive features. The style works well with the overall tone of the movie and doesn’t let “cutesy” dogs get in the way of what is happening with the plot, jokes, or action. It makes everything seem more “contemporary,” which is appropriate for the non-fairy tale feel of the story. It demonstrates, once again, that storytelling, which this movie has in spades, will triumph over elaborate animation every time.

The movie, now 47 years old, still stands up well. It still entertains adults and kids, a true family film. Unless you have an old VHS copy lying around, it might have been a few years since you’ve seen the original and it is definitely worth checking out. This is the 11th Disney animated film to be released as a “Platinum Edition.” It is a very impressive 2-disc set that presents the film beautifully and provides all the extras needed to enhance the experience. Some filler does exist, but it’s limited and some of it even has its own charms.

As someone who threw away his decrepit VHS copy of this movie at least five years ago, the digital transfer on the new DVD is wonderful. Disney says they did a complete digital restoration on both the picture and the sound. I don’t have anything to compare the new version to, but it is crisp. More information about the restoration isn’t provided in a featurette, but there is a side by side comparison on the back of the box and it does look better. It suits the deep black lines that are the dominate look. The film certainly does not look its age. It was originally created in 1.33 to 1 so it will have a “full screen” rather than “widescreen” look on your television. Don’t worry, purists, you’re seeing the whole picture.

There is not an audio commentary included, but there are two commentary-like “pop-up” options. Each has 101 facts that pop-up unobtrusively on-screen during the movie. One is geared for “The Family” and the other is for “The Fan.” The Fan facts focus heavily on who animated what character, who directed which scene, and who voices the characters. There are other interesting facts and this made the viewing experience more enjoyable after watching the film once without any pop-ups. The Family information tends more towards differences between the book and the film, facts about book writer Dodie Smith and how she used her real life in the book, and explanation of terms used in 1960’s England that might not be familiar to kids. Despite being focused towards children, it includes information that should be interesting to any viewer.

The only other item on disc 1 with the movie and the pop-ups is an awful video for a “Cruella De Vil” song remake by Selena Gomez. Gomez is the star of one of a Disney Channel television show but is also a bland pop singer, like most young female Disney properties. It would have shown a little edginess to toss in The Replacements cover of “Cruella De Vil,” but they went with the cross promotion for this one. Avoid the video and stick to Roger singing the original in the movie.

The remaining extras are provided on disc 2 and are broken into three broad categories. The first is “Backstage Disney.” This is the usual behind-the-scenes stuff. The highlight is the excellent 34-minute “Redefining the Line: The Making of The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Current animators and some of the original contributors discuss the movie and it’s various innovations in look and storytelling. There is discussion about the animation style, explaining the difference between the hand style of animation used in previous Disney films and how this film was animated. There is also a lot of discussion about the film’s writer and chief storyboarder, Bill Peet, who is given significant credit for its success.

Other “Backstage” items are a seven minute segment focusing specifically on one of Disney’s all-time great villains, Cruella De Vil. Animators and historians talk about her inspirations and why she stands out among the Disney villains. A fairly boring overlong segment called “Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney,” which “reenacts” the correspondence between Disney and Dodie Smith before the making of the movie, is included. It’s a lot of “I can’t wait to see the movie,” and “boy, I think you’re gonna enjoy the movie.” The reenactments are cornball, making it more kitchy to watch than anything. There are also trailers and radio spots for the movie’s release and various re-releases and some art from the movie. These other items are nothing spectacular but when taken as a group with the very good making-of featurette, it is a substantial addition to the set.

The second group of extras is called “Music and More,” with "more: being the right way to describe it. While the movie itself is pretty light on music for a Disney animated film, there were other songs written for the movie. They are included; sometimes with storyboarding to show how they would have been presented in the film. There are also alternate versions of other songs including “Dalmation Plantation” and “Cruella De Vil.” The “Cruella De Vil” alternate takes run on for almost 20 minutes. Even the “Kanine Krunchies” song is shown in nine different voiced versions. It can be a little much at times, but there is a certain thoroughness that will appeal to fans.

The final and least interesting section is “Games and Activities.” The disc can be placed in a computer to play a Virtual Dalmatian game that involves you adopting one of the puppies and playing with it. It seems a little boring, but it might entertain a younger child. There is a sample of the same game that can be played on the DVD if the kids have the disc someplace where a computer is not available. There is a Puppy Profiler game that involves you answering a bunch of questions as if you were an animal and then being shown who your best “pet” would be. Finally, a language game helps kids who are younger than about four to match up with words with common objects. It might also be intended to help kids where English is their second language.

Despite the lousy quality of the games, the rest of the DVD is terrific. It presents the movie in a clear, ageless picture with good sound quality. The extras enhance your watching experience and are fairly easy to navigate, even for younger kids. This is a good presentation of a classic animated movie.

Oh - before I get a lot of outraged e-mails from Disney-kooks (you know who you are), the movie was called One Hundred and One Dalmatians for its theatrical release, but most re-releases, including this one, call it 101 Dalmatians.