After a brief foray into fairy tales again, Walt jumps right back to another film about dogs. He’s also back to another reliable tradition: adaptation. The subject matter this time is Dodie Smith’s 1954 children’s novel One Hundred and One Dalmatians. (Although, Ms. Smith is likely more remembered for her 1948 novel I Capture the Castle, Dalmatians was loosely based on the author’s personal experiences.) The crux of the story is simple: Cruella de Vil, a London heiress, kidnaps, er dognaps, a litter of dalmatian puppies so she can skin them and use their fur to make a coat. When the puppies’ parents, Pongo and Perdita, finally track down their babies, it’s revealed that Cruella has been stealing puppies all across the city and there are now 99 missing pups in total.
It’s not hard to imagine this story’s appeal to Walt considering the time and effort he put into Lady and the Tramp a few years earlier. From an animation perspective, this film is perhaps one of the more complex outings Disney animators had ever undertaken. It also suffered from Walt’s slash-and-burn attitude when his previous film, Sleeping Beauty, failed to impress the box office. To help create more than a hundred dalmatians in some scenes, and an array of other four-legged creatures, Disney experimented with a new animation technique called Xerography. The process involved photocopying original pencil drawings of the principle characters directly onto the film’s cels rather than copying them by hand as was the practice up to this point. On the downside, xeroxing created harsher lines and the Disney films of this era lost the clean, delicate look inking by hand affords. But it was cheaper and less time-consuming, so the method stuck around for almost 30 years — it did soften eventually.
The animation work was relatively spread out on this film, as well. Typically, Walt’s more experienced animators (like the famed Nine Old Men) were each assigned a principle character and drew all of that character’s scenes. In Dalmatians, however, many of the animators teamed up to work on the principle characters. In particular, seven of the Nine Old Men worked on Perdita alone. The only exception was Marc Davis, whose credits include Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent and Aurora, Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell and Alice in Wonderland’s Alice. He drew Cruella all on his own. In fact, Dalmatians was Davis’s last film for Disney; he went on to design such classic Disney theme park rides as The Haunted Mansion and The Pirates of the Caribbean.
In a classically Disney moment, the film’s most touching scene depicts Pongo and Perdita issuing an SOS-like cry, called the Twilight Bark, to dogs in the city, pleading for information on the whereabouts of their pups. While heartwarming, the scene starts a sequence that invites several comparisons to the Second World War with hat tips to the Paris Underground, secret messaging services and daring rescues from behind enemy lines (all unsurprising inclusions given Walt’s previous involvement with propaganda). The Twilight Bark is reminiscent of civilian radio operators sending information about Nazi troop movements to each other and eventually back to military leaders. Pongo and Perdita then use this information to dive into the lion’s den, so to speak, and meet with the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs who are hidden operatives in Cruella’s back yard. No puppy left behind, all 99 of the prisoners make it home to London safe and sound.
The film premiered at Manhatten’s famed Radio City Music Hall on Jan. 25, 1961, and grossed $14-million domestically in its initial run. (The film has since collected a lifetime domestic gross of almost $145-million.) The New York Times said, “Even with a lady Lucifer hell-bent for their hides, those Dalmatians are a friendly lot worth knowing,” adding that the dogs are “as cute as can be” and that kids “should love them.” The reviewer praises Disney’s ability to keep the adaptation “enclosed in a typical Disney frame of warm family love, human and canine.”
While maybe not as memorable as some of Disney’s other classics, the story is an entertaining tale of the bond of family with a truck-full of the cutest puppies to boot. Oh, and a bonus fun fact for those of you with a keen eye: There is a hidden Mickey on almost every dalmatian — or so we’ve heard. We couldn’t find any of them.)