Tuesday, January 25, 2011
The Canine Caper of the Century
“We had a unit just for the spots.”
One Hundred and One Dalmatians, celebrating its 50th anniversary today, was a complete breakthrough in nearly every aspect of animated film production from concept, to artwork, to technology, to score. It was the first time that Disney animation created a fully contemporary film rather than a fantasy based on a fairy tale. It was set in the contemporary time, in a real place. In fact, Disney would not go back to the fairy tale until The Little Mermaid in 1989. It was based on Dodie Smith’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was a roaring success in England.
The art design was completely new because they moved away from the realistic representations (particularly for humans and landscapes) that had characterized previous films such as Snow White and Cinderella. The backgrounds were filled in with blocks of color that did not always “stay within the lines” and the art designers purposefully set reference lines and items within the scene asymmetrically. It was the first time since Fantasia that the art design was dedicated to being “art” — a fully realized vision with its own syntax and vocabulary. Even the score moved away from the typical swelling orchestral sound to a very modern jazz theme. The score fit in so well with the film, it told the very story through music. The title theme “spoke” the words “One Hundred and One…” Bomp Bompbomp bomp Bomp… and in the crucial scene when water is dripping from the eaves, the score drips and dribbles too. Of course, Disney had tackled this previously with Fantasia, but never within the contemporary jazz context. Although the human leading man's occupation was a songwriter, the film was not a musical, another departure from the status quo.
|Notice that outlining, where it exists, is in subtle color.|
Dalmatians’ predecessor, Sleeping Beauty, while not properly called a flop, cost a fortune and didn't make the money that was expected. Significant layoffs hit the animation department, and the scarcity of labor made it crucial that the animators figure out how to produce a film that didn't use their traditionally labor-intensive methods. They had test-driven Xerox technology with the previous film, and determined that it was perfect for Dalmatians. Rather than having a pool of young ladies to hand ink the animators’ lines onto cels, they were Xeroxed, and only then filled in by hand.
|Compare the curtains in the two images.|
It was born of necessity, but it turned out that Dalmatians was the perfect film for the new technology. Xeroxing meant that the outlines were black, rather than color. If you’re making a film about black and white dogs, that’s perfect. In addition, Xerox was so new, it was not as refined as we know it today, so it worked best with straight lines and sharp angles, again perfect for the very stylized and contemporary art design that was used. Color Xeroxing would eventually be developed, but it was not until CGI technology that animators felt that they recaptured the subtlety of hand inking. Dalmatians also was unique in that there was only one “story man,” Bill Peet. Usually a team of story men would work together to condense the source material into a comic strip style storyboard to drive the film production. Because Disney knew he was too busy with other parts of his empire, he entrusted the job to the very experienced Peet who decided to do the whole thing himself. The amazing thing is that comparing the finished product to his original storyboard, there are virtually no changes. Dodie Smith called Peet and said that he had actually improved her story.
Pongo and his “pet” Roger, a composer, are two bachelors living in London, and as springtime is when a young stud’s fancy turns to love, Pongo decides to find Roger a mate. Of course, the eligible candidate happens to be the owner of a lovely Dalmatian bitch. After a meet cute including Pongo’s leash and a pond, both couples find marital bliss which in one case results in 15 offspring. The film adds contemporary touches throughout the story in that both couples are shown being affectionate toward each other, they all watch TV and little visual jokes like Roger’s composing accoutrement, including a full stand-up bass relegated to the attic in the marital home. When the puppies go missing, and Scotland Yard gets nowhere, Pongo and his mate Perdita take it upon themselves to recover them. They spread the word through the “Twilight Bark,” when dogs throughout London call out the news. How delightful as a child to imagine all the news going from yard to flat to house in the racket of dogs barking. How delightful also to see Jock, Peg, and the boys from Lady and the Tramp helping pass on the messages.
The puppies are found by the harrumphing sheepdog the Colonel, along with his compatriots: the cat Sergeant Tibbs and the dray horse the Captain. Pongo and Perdita make the long trek to Suffolk to discover not only their 15 puppies, but 84 more, bought and paid for at pet shops. It’s at this point that we discover that all these puppies are meant to be a coat for the black-and white-haired Cruella. Given that her partners in crime are bumbling fools, the escape is not so harrowing as the chase when Cruella discovers her coat with legs has fled. One of my favorite series of moments is when the bag men blunder into the barn. The Colonel leads them into the perfect position, and the camera shifts to Tibbs sitting on the Captain’s head and sighting between his ears like a scope. He pulls down one ear, “fire one!” and then the angle shifts to the Captain’s hind leg cocked back, ready to give a terrific kick. I know what's coming, but it still makes me laugh.
It’s winter in England, so the trip back is not be an easy one. All 101 struggle through the deep snow and wind, and although we’re watching a cartoon of talking dogs, we can only think, “They’re just babies!” The major coup is when the dogs discover that they can roll in soot and disguise themselves as Labradors. They load all 99 puppies into a truck bound for London, and it's Cruella’s own obsession that causes her to drive her Hellmobile into a ravine. Of course, it’s no problem for Roger and Anita to take on 99 puppies, so they sing that they will have a “Dalmatian Plantation.”
Of course, one of the main reasons for Dalmatians’ huge success was the introduction of one of the biggest and best baddies of all time — Cruella de Vil. So many of us can sing at least the first line of her theme song, “Cru-ella de Vil, Cru-ella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will…” Singlehandedly designed and animated by one person, Marc Davis, she enters the film by careening around a corner in her roadster from Hell and bursting through Anita and Roger’s front door trailing green cigarette smoke. Davis’ wife would tell of how he enjoyed working on Cruella so much, he would chortle at his own drawings. She’s a skeleton wrapped in a fur, with jutting hip and cheekbones and a grey cadaverous face. Yet she has a certain refinement in how she holds that cigarette holder and purrs her words (when she’s not screaming). She’s got money, she’s always had it, and she’s used to getting her way. By the time of the climactic chase scene, the hood of her car has been ripped away showing the flames shooting out and she’s quite literally become Hell on Wheels. Her eyes are red psychedelic spinning circles, demonstrating that she’s willing to let her single-minded pursuit completely take her over. How scary is that? I’ll never forget as a kid realizing Cruella’s triple horror — she doesn’t just want to kill the puppies, she also wants to skin them, AND WEAR THEM! Cruella set such a high standard that she created some internal rivalry among the animators. In preproduction for The Rescuers, Davis was told there was a villainess that would “blow Cruella off the screen.”
Ironically, Walt Disney didn’t initially like Dalmatians. It was contemporary in every sense, and Disney, the creator of the magical world of Disneyland, the world of fairies and princesses, was a romantic. He had been distracted by his TV show, the live action films of Disney Productions, as well as the theme park, so he was not as involved in Dalmatians as he had been in previous animated offerings. However, he maintained his warm correspondence with Dodie Smith, begun in negotiations for the rights, well after the production wrapped. She was quite pleased with the film, and this seemed to reassure him, although he continually tried to mollify her because her credit, she wrote, was too small.
Disney’s reservations proved to be unfounded because Dalmatians was a runaway hit, grossing well over the production costs, meriting multiple theatrical re-releases and spinoffs including the 2000 live-action version starring Glenn Close, 102 Dalmatians. It is cited by the new generation of animators as a canon work to study, and it determined the direction Disney’s animation division would take for the next decades. Parents still delight in sharing the film with their children even though this thoroughly “contemporary” work is now a period piece. Style aside, it’s a moving story of love and family. A true classic, it fulfilled the hope to make an animated film a work of art.