Sunday, January 27, 2013

Disney Canon: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Those who, unlike me, aren't fans of Disney's classic animation are usually set aback by the films' big sentimentality and cuteness factor. If you didn't grow up watching and loving these movies, then it's understandable that, as an adult, you will have little patience for cute woodland creatures and obviously emotional moments like the faith of Bambi's mother. You might also find yourself feeling uncomfortable with Disney's dated representation of its heroines. If you are one of these people, then what you probably need in order to gain appreciation for Disney's work, is to watch One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which is not only one of the best, but also one of the most original movies in the Disney Canon. 

Disney's very ambitious take on Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959... and didn't make any money. By this time, the company was very much invested in two new ventures: Disneyland and television. Many people told Walt the best thing he could do was to stop making animated featured. The man recognized animated films were what brought him to the top in the first place, but man were they a bad investment. Enter a man called Bob Iwerks, and his plan to cut spending with the so-called "Xerox technique". As its name suggests, this technique pretty much consists of using a xerox machine to translate the animators' drawings from paper into animation cells. This was a big way of cutting expenses since it eliminated the whole inking department, which consisted of ladies that had done an amazing job of transposing the animators' drawings into cells ever since the beginning of the company. Suddenly these women were out of work, but Disney could work on a budget that wouldn't put the company on the risk of bankruptcy every time they wanted to release an animated feature. 

Unlike a person working in the inking department, the xerox machine could only use black ink, something that could have been a problem in other movies (think for example, of the gorgeous tapestry of colors presented in Sleeping Beauty), but wasn't a big problem for Disney's next project: an adaptation of Dodie Smith's children book One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Dalmatians were perfectly suited for the xerox process, because, you know, they are black and white; and at the end of the day, having everything being traced in black lines would give One Hundred and One Dalmatians a distinct, and in its own way beautiful, look. The stylized character designed utilized in Sleeping Beauty was taken to a new level with this movie, which not only uses more pointy lines, but also embraces highly cartoony characters. This is never more apparent than in the first scene of the movie, in which dalmatian Pongo looks out the window trying to find a wife for his human "pet" Roger. 

The cartoony similarities between the dogs and their owners makes this one of the most memorable scenes in the movie and one that must have been applied many times in real life by those who have seen it (Is sitting in the park and figuring out someone's personality by their dog a thing?). This all brings me to one of the most important aspects of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It is Disney's first contemporary movie, taking place in the early 1960s, and featuring maybe the most realistic situations so far in the Canon. And it feels like the animators really wanted to make this feel like a true product of its time. One Hundred and One Dalmatians has an incredibly particular look for a Disney movie, one that would never get it confused with any other Disney movie, not even Lady and the Tramp. 

The Xerox process again goes hand in hand with another aspect of the movie: the art direction and background design. The drawing of the background, done with black lines and the little differences between what is depicted and the coloring, which doesn't always end where the black lines do and sometimes paints many things the same color gives the movie an expressionistic and very modern-art look. The title sequence, too, is a first for Disney, showing playful animation, full of spot-based puns and set to an equally playful jazz score by George Burns. These are but some of the elements in design that embrace the distinct tone of the story of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the most playful and sui generis movie in the Disney Canon up to this point. 

We've talked about the style, let's talk about the substance. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is based on the book of the same name by Dodie Smith and was in its adaptation to the screen pretty much the vision of one man: Bill Peet. Usually, it's between five and ten people that are in charge of the story on a Disney production, but this time Peet is the only one to receive a story credit. If the documentaries and statements on the subject are any indication, he did do the job pretty much by himself. And kudos to him on that, since he is probably the person responsible for the film's uniqueness. 

You surely are familiar with the story. Dalmatians Pongo and Perdita have fifteen puppies, which evil Cruela De Vil kidnaps so she can turn them into a fur coat. As it's many times the case, it's not so much what is told, but the way it's told that makes the movie so special. Peet didn't write what at that point (and to this day) was recognized as a "Disney movie". For starters, unlike all the previous feature-length entries in the canon, this movie couldn't be called a musical. There are only two songs in the movie and only one of them really takes an important role in the plot. I'm talking, of course, about "Cruela De Vil".  

While we're at it, let's talk a little bit about Cruela as a character. Like Cinderella's Lady Tremaine (which I'm on the record as saying is one of the greatest Disney villains), Cruela is no witch, fairy, or queen; she's just an ordinary woman. But unlike Lady Tremaine, she is an undoubtedly modern woman. Just looking at the video above you get a kind of behavior that feels very far from the solemn evil of Maleficent or Lady Tremaine. She's that annoying self-centered aunt that doesn't stop talking whenever she enters a room. We all know someone like that. Cruela isn't by any means a down-to-earth character. She's a hurricane, but one that is made all the more terrifying by her familiarity. You know exactly what type of person Cruela is and this is one of the crucial decisions that One Hundred and One Dalmatians gets right. As comparison, the Cruela from the 1996 live-action remake played by Glenn Close is a psychotic mess that you can't for a moment believe wouldn't be locked in a mental institution. 

It's important we can identify Cruela as a human being because Bill Peet wasn't writing a fantasy musical, he was writing a romance, an adventure, a thriller and most importantly, a good movie. More than any previous Disney film, this one feels the most cleverly plotted. Here we don't get long scenes featuring the mice running from Lucifer or the dwarfs washing their faces. Here every scene fuels the plot of the next one. Even a scene in which we see the dalmatian family watching television gets its own payoff later in the film. It is so well structured that even knowing the ending, I was biting my nails as the dalmatians disguised themselves as labradors to make their escape. It is also a very forward-looking film. Like Cruela, the married couple, Roger and Anita, do feel as if they were people. They flirt, they make jokes, they have a relationship. Not to mention the little detail that made me happiest: Perdita goes along with Pongo to save their children. You might don't think much about this, but how easy would it have been to set Pongo off while Perdita stayed in the house? 

It's a curious thing, that the movie most bound to reality ended up being the most playful and utterly entertaining of the Disney catalogue. The movie might not get to the emotional high-points of Pinocchio or Dumbo, but any way I look at it, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is one of Disney's biggest triumphs.  

Next Week: After this 60s adventure, it's back to medieval times with The Sword in the Stone.

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