As Walt Disney's direct involvement in the Disney Company declined, so too did the overall standard of their work. 101 Dalmatians came at a time when Disney was diversifying into live-action films, television and theme parks; after the box-office failure of Sleeping Beauty, there was even talk of shutting down the animation division. Through a combination of rudimentary technology and priorities being elsewhere, the film is not quite the children's classic it is made out to be. But even the weakest efforts from the Golden Age manage to keep us entertained, and the film comes through thanks to a riveting final act.
101 Dalmatians is notable first and foremost from a personnel point of view. Not only was Walt's direct involvement being reduced, but the film represents a passing of the torch to a new generation who would guide the company through the 1970s and 1980s. In this case Clyde Geronomi and Hamilton Luske, who directed for Disney throughout the 1950s, are paired with Wolfgang Reitherman, who would later helm Robin Hood and The Rescuers. While Reitherman had previously collaborated with Geronomi and Luske on Sleeping Beauty, this was the first Disney film on which his directorial stamp was the dominant one.
The major innovation that Reitherman oversaw with Disney was the introduction of Xerox photography. In essence this involved being able to transfer the original pencil drawings by animators directly onto animation cels, eliminating the need for inkers to go in and flesh out the original outlines before colour was added. While this process reduced the number of drawings needing to be reproduced, and thereby saved Disney a lot of money, the standard of animation was visibly lower. The initial animators were used to drawing sketchily, producing drawings of general movement which would have detail added by the inkers. Having fired all their inkers, Disney were left with whatever rough drawings their initial animators produced, and the only way to beautify them was with the choice of colour.
The best way to illustrate the point for those who aren't technically minded is to compare 101 Dalmatians with Sleeping Beauty. Though many of its character designs are very angular and striking, Sleeping Beauty looks and feels like a film carefully laboured over, as if every frame had been shaped with a chisel until its edges were smooth enough. Its colours range from the gentle browns of the wood to the demonic red, black and green of Maleficent.
With 101 Dalmatians, the animation looks like it has been deliberately simplified, with much less going on in every frame. The colours are a paler assortment of pastel shades, and there has been much less effort expended to cover the replication of characters' faces. You simply don't get the sense that every single one of the Dalmatians was designed and drawn to be different. Instead the same faces turn up time and time again - not to mention the lifting of previous characters in the shop window cutaway, and arguably the recycling of the four elephants from Dumbo into the four cows.
For the most part, 101 Dalmatians is an honest, enjoyable, silly little pantomime. It takes the dog's-eye-view conceit of Lady and the Tramp, in which we barely saw a human face, and plays everything in broader strokes with simpler characters. While in Lady and the Tramp there was tension between pet and owner in the form of a child, Roger and Anita (whom we see from the start) get on just fine and there is no obstacle between them and their pets. They're the equivalent of the king and queen in a theatrical pantomime: they don't do much in the story, they just run the kingdom in which the protagonists live.
The antagonists in the film are equally broad. Out of all the Disney villains, Cruella De Vil is the most pantomime and exaggerated until Medusa in The Rescuers (who was effectively a rip-off of Cruella). Her name, the fancy dress, the exaggerated movements and the evil laugh - everything is over-the-top funny, in contrast to the gleeful menace of the fairy tale villains. Her goons, Horace and Jasper, obey the double act dynamic that dates back to Laurel and Hardy: one of them is stupid but thinks he's smart, the other one is quite smart but is made to think he's stupid.
Not only are the characters straight out of pantomime, but aspects of the plot are as baggy as a sub-par amateur production. There are at least two occasions where the film resorts to the characters watching television - and while the second time there is a point to it, it's an indication of how little is going on that the characters are so easily side-tracked. Moreover, the montages of the dogs covering ground are dragged out so much, that it can feel like entire seasons pass before they get from London to the countryside.
The plot of 101 Dalmatians is pretty simple: a woman who wants some fur coats kidnaps a load of puppies, who are rescued by two adult dogs and adopted by the adults' owners. But the first hour is so stretched out that all we have to sustain ourselves is our on-going empathy with the characters and anything that happens which is unintentionally funny. The empathy is assured because both the dogs and their owners are too nice to get in a huff about, while most of the hilarity comes from Nanny. Although she's styled like a plainer version of Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty, she's voiced by the same actress that played Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone. Whenever she gets excited, you're just waiting for her to change size and shape as she dances and bounces through her lines.
Perhaps the biggest problem with 101 Dalmatians is that it doesn't have the same scale or ambition as the earlier works. Some of this is inherent in the source material: for all the appeal of Dodie Smith's novel, the parks and streets of London don't have the grandeur of a castle in a faraway land, or a forest filled with evil trees. But more than that, the more modern, conservative setting corresponds to the lack of anything magical in the animation or the story's execution. Disney himself had deep reservations about the film, and held a grudge against the art director Ken Anderson until a few weeks before his death in 1966.
Up to around the hour mark, 101 Dalmatians comes across as a perfectly passable if not particularly engaging children's film. Depending on your attachment to the early works of Disney, that observation will either induce despair or disinterest. There's nothing about the film that is objectionable or striking, but it keeps us engaged on a certain level. And then, as we enter into the last 20 minutes, everything changes for the better, giving us a final act which, in the context of what has gone before, it pretty startling.
The shift occurs when all the dogs and Sergeant Tibbs the cat have been backed into a corner by Horace and Jasper. Suddenly the colour scheme shifts from a series of dusty, grey-brown tones to the same full-on, Technicolor red that Alfred Hitchcock used in Vertigo. Not only are things brighter and more intense, but the pace begins to pick up. Having taken its sweet time to get the dogs to the countryside, it becomes a genuine race against time to get them back, and the obstacles keep coming to prevent their journey from being easy.
From this moment on, everything about the film that had been harmless and silly suddenly gains a sense of weight. Cruella stops being a pantomime dame who is evil for its own sake, and takes on a more dangerous, obsessive quality. The close-ups of her in the car are quite freaky, with spiralling eyes that foreshadow Who Framed Roger Rabbit and expressions that clearly influenced the design of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Both her stealthy patrols of the town and the final chase are genuinely tense, with the action building to a great climax and a solid reunion.
On the strength of its last 20 minutes, 101 Dalmatians stops being merely a decent film and secures its status as a genuinely good one. While the story has none of the power or memorable qualities of the earlier works of Disney, the characters are always likeable and it has the same enjoyably silly spirit as a pantomime. It can't claim any pride of place within the Disney canon, but it serves as a decent introduction for younger viewers.