Has any kid ever really understood how dark 101 Dalmatians really is in the grand scheme of Disney movies? When you really stop and think about the stakes in the average Disney animated feature, you start to realize just how low the stakes usually are. Rarely, is the princess’s life in danger, and in fact most of the time, the worst fate set to befall the heroes is either a coma (Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), imprisonment in some powerless form (The Little Mermaid), exile from a kingdom now ruled by some horrible person (Aladdin, Mulan, or The Lion King), kidnapping (Oliver & Company or The Rescuers), or something even tamer. Death is rarely on the table, and when it is, like with Mufasa in The Lion King, it’s because it’s cribbing from Shakespeare. Credit that to these being movies targeted at children, but if you do that, then you’re still left with having to answer how it is that, by comparison, the plot for 101 Dalmatians is about a vainglorious madwoman who wants to slaughter puppies for a coat.
That’s not to put human lives and puppies live on an equal level, but if you can find another Disney animated movie where the villain’s intent is to slaughter 99 characters who are of the same species as the film’s primary protagonists and then wear them as clothing—or do worse--I’d like to hear it.
101 Dalmatians starts with two, as Dalmatians Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer) convince their respective human owners, Roger (Ben Wright) and Anita (Lisa Davis), that both of them having Dalmatians is the only requirement for a successful relationship. The two wed, and Pongo and Perdita get to work making puppies with great success. After Perdita gives birth to 15 puppies, the news reaches exactly the wrong person: wealthy socialite Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), who offers but is refused the opportunity to buy all of the puppies. Cruella De Vil, however, is not so easily put off her ambitions, and as she’s dead-set on the idea of turning those puppies into a spotted coat, she has two goons, Jasper (J. Pat O’Malley) and Horace (Frederick Worlock), kidnap Pongo and Perdita’s litter along with, apparently, 84 other Dalmatian puppies. How exactly that many Dalmatian puppies happened to be simultaneously born in London and how that didn’t make the news after the first 50 puppies were stolen is never really addressed, because, goddamn, that’s a lot of Dalmatian puppies.
Upon realizing their children have been captured, Pongo and Perdita set off to find them, calling on the help from countless other dogs in London and the English countryside to aid them in their search.
It’s kind of impressive that such a dark story managed not to traumatize the generations of children that have since grown up with it, but it’s probably because the reality of the situation for those puppies gets drowned out by the bumbling antics of Horace and Jasper who make the plot to kill and skin 99 puppies seem less threatening by their incompetence. The cute nature of puppies also helps blind children to the fate that’s awaiting the 99 mini-protagonists if Pongo and Perdita don’t make it in time to save them. How can a child be expected to consider the brutality awaiting the puppy on the screen when the puppy on the screen is adorably barking at another dog on the TV in the movie? It’s a very clever sleight of hand that dangles a really depressing scenario in front of children only to have it turn into puppy-infused entrancement with the flick of the wrist and a bunch of frames filled with puppies.
101 Dalmatians counterbalances the otherwise traumatic events of its plot with lots of talking dogs and the end result is a film that’s remembered for its titular canines and not the uncharacteristically cruel fate that awaited them.
The animation style is also noticeably different from many of the other Disney animated features that came before and after. The animation seems somewhat cruder and more angular than many classic Disney movies, but at the same time it fits. The dirty look of the animation fits with early to mid-90s London, and it at the same time it’s from a generation of Disney features that seemed to represent a transition or willingness to experiment in animation styles. Sleeping Beauty, which preceded 101 Dalmatians by two years, belongs to that same period of experimentation with its striking emphasis on bold colorization and creative artwork.
All that darkness aside, 101 Dalmatians remains one of the most popular classic Disney films among kids, and if you stop to think about its story, it helps to explain why Finding Nemo has the same status: they essentially have the same story told through animals (though Nemo only suffers incarceration, not being killed and skinned for a fishcoat for the dentist). A child or children get kidnapped; the concerned parent set out to find them; the parents enlist the help of other animals along the way. There must be something about parents coming to rescue their children that kids find comforting. Who would have guessed?
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The Diamond Edition of 101 Dalmatians includes the film on Blu-ray, DVD, and as a digital copy, along with new disc-based featurettes on dogs, a special “Disney View” mode for watching the movie, and a look at the film by a Disney Channel TV star. All other extras are ported from previous DVD releases.
"101 Dalmatians - Diamond Edition" is on sale February 10, 2015 and is rated G. Adventure, Animation. Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman. Written by Bill Peet, Dodie Smith. Starring Rod Taylor, Frederick Worlock.