Disney's 101 Dalmatians (1961) marked a substantial shift in the studio's approach to animation. Less concerned with magic and sentiment than earlier productions like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Peter Pan, this streamlined adventure aims more for broad comedy and animal antics. It also marked a substantial shift in the way their films were created; after the nearly decade-long production of Sleeping Beauty yielded disappointing box office results, the struggling animation department was on the verge of total collapse. Technology saved the day: Xerox cameras were modified to eliminate the need for manual inking of every frame, resulting in a direct transfer to the animation cel. The animators were happy, as their original work ended up on the screen. Executives were happy because production time and expenses were smaller. I'd imagine the only ones who didn't like this advancement were the inkers.
Either way, the film's short turnaround time paired well with strong ticket sales: 101 Dalmatians was the year's tenth-highest grossing film, paving the way for future classics like The Jungle Book, um...Robin Hood, and...OK, so the next 25 years of Disney animation weren't all that consistent. But 101 Dalmatians was (and still is!) a whole lot of fun: it's a lightweight production that appeals to all ages, is easy on the eyes, and doesn't overstay its welcome.
Our story follows Pongo and Perdita (voiced by Rod Taylor and Cate Bauer), two Dalmatians who pair up their human "pets" named Roger (Ben Wright, with Bill Lee as his singing voice) and Anita Radcliffe (Lisa Davis). Months later, Perdita gives birth to a healthy litter of
14 15 puppies. The only problem is Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson): she's a fur coat enthusiast interested in said puppies, and the Radcliffes can't afford to feed 17 dogs on Roger's songwriting paychecks. They reject Cruella's offer to buy the litter at twice their value...but it doesn't matter, because the pups are kidnapped by bumbling Jasper (J. Pat O'Malley) and Horace (Frederick Worlock) almost immediately. Everyone knows who's responsible for the crime...but Scotland Yard comes up short, so it's up to Pongo and Perdita to dig for clues. Using the top-secret "Twilight Bark", almost every dog in the surrounding London area is informed of the situation. Soon enough, the missing puppies are tracked to the old De Vil house, along with...*grabs a calculator*...84 more.
Divided into two distinct halves, 101 Dalmatians presents a simple, charming origin tale and the darker rescue mission, refusing to pad its 79-minute story with extraneous sub-plots; in fact, the film's most drawn-out segment is the "Twilight Bark" telephone game, which doesn't even crack 10 minutes. The result is a light, breezy animated production that obviously clicked with audiences in 1961 and holds up perfectly today; there's very little depth to the characters or their motivations (especially De Vil, who's about as flatly over-the-top as Disney villains get), but the end result is anything but dull or unsatisfying. Likewise, Disney's new "Diamond Edition" Blu-ray plays to the film's strengths, serving up a strong A/V presentation and a somewhat thin but appropriate collection of extras.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
For obvious reasons, it's tough to award a free pass to any Disney Blu-ray released during the last few years; some, like The Sword in the Stone and Mickey's Christmas Carol, were rightly lambasted for their overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR), while others like Peter Pan fell victim to color revision. Still, the studio has maintained a fairly solid track record otherwise, and I'm inclined to grade 101 Dalmatians much higher than those previously mentioned discs.
Framed at 1.33:1 and also available to watch in "Disney View" (which basically replaces the black window-boxed bars with a decorative design), this 1080p transfer reveals excellent colors, strong image detail and very little in the way of digital manipulation. 101 Dalmatians' clever use of animation aided by modified Xerox cameras---a cost-cutting process employed after Sleeping Beauty's expensive production---resulted in a more angular and almost "scruffy" appearance; though some might mistake the appearance of this transfer with one heavily saturated with DNR, it looks accurate to my eyes and the film's visuals feel as detailed as they ought to. Color saturation is excellent, black levels are deep, and typical animation-on-disc problems like banding are kept to a minimum. From the expressive animation to the film's painterly backgrounds, 101 Dalmatians looks terrific on Blu-ray and I'd imagine that most fans will agree.
NOTE: The screen captures and images featured in this review are decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
Similar to the the 2008 DVD release, audio options include separate multi-channel (in this case, DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio, which replaces the DVD's 5.1 remix) and "original theatrical audio" (Dolby 1.0) options, along with French and Spanish dubs. The 7.1 option might seem like overkill for a 1961 film, animated or otherwise, but this is a tasteful remix that adds strong channel separation, rear effects, and a modest amount of low end if the situation demands it. Don't get me wrong: I'd probably pick the original mix if forced to choose (even though it's not lossless for whatever reason), but it's certainly nice to have the option. Either way, this is a fine sonic presentation that fans will appreciate. Optional English, SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included during the film and most of the extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The simple interface is cleanly designed and easy to use, providing separate options for chapter selection, setup and bonus features. This two-disc (BD+DVD) set is housed in a standard dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive cover art and a matching slipcover. A handful of ad inserts are included in lieu of a booklet, though a partial list of bonus features has been printed on the back cover. There's also a Digital Copy
redemption code, if that floats your boat.
Four brand new extras are included, and three of 'em are terrific. "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt"
(1:48) is a short but sweet new episode of the black-and-white canine serial glimpsed during 101 Dalmatians
, with film clips and dialogue spliced in to provide a little texture. It's a cute effort that, like the film, doesn't overstay its welcome.
"Lucky Dogs" (9:08) provides an overview of the film's production and place in Disney history, as told by first-hand contributors like assistant animator Rolly Crump, ink-and-painter Carmen Sanderson, assistant animator Burny Mattison, animator Floyd Norman, executive Don Iwerks, and Lisa Davis (the voice of Anita, although she was originally suggested by Disney to audition for Cruella). There's some terrific behind-the-scenes footage and photos here, as well as concept artwork and other doodles...and though it's much too short, this flashback is still enjoyable.
"The Best Doggoned Dog in the Word" (51:05) is a 1961 installment of Disneyland; hosted by Walt himself, this is actually a re-tooled update of a 1957 episode that replaces footage of Old Yeller (which had just finished production) with clips from 101 Dalmatians in black-and-white. There's also some great footage of Arizona sheepdogs and other extraordinary breeds in action, and even a preview for next week's exciting episode. This is a real treasure and well worth watching...and if you want to see the original Old Yeller version of the episode, it's included on this DVD.
*Sigh*...and then there's "Dalmatians 101" (5:12), hosted by The Disney Channel's Cameron Boyce (Jesse, Jake and the Neverland Pirates). It's one of those kid-friendly features that attempts to sell younger viewers on this boring old movie because an adventure about puppies wouldn't appeal to them otherwise. Watch this once, or just skip it.
Those clutching on to their Platinum Edition DVDs needn't worry too much: just about everything of interest from that release has been included too, including ""Redefining the Line: The Making of The One Hundred and One Dalmatians", "Cruella De Vil: Drawn to be Bad", "Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney", a collection of Trailers, Radio, and TV Spots, and the obligatory "Music & More" section. The only missing items are two pop-up trivia tracks and an art gallery...which I'm a little sad to see gone, but the menu-based games and DVD-ROM content won't be missed. As expected, these bonus features are presented in a mixture of 1080p and 480p resolution and most of 'em include optional subtitles.
Disney's 101 Dalmatians was a rousing success in 1961 and almost single-handedly saved its animation department after the exhausting production and financial failure of Sleeping Beauty just two years earlier. This is a short and lightweight adventure populated by one-note characters and a relatively thin story...but that's exactly what it's supposed to be, and sometimes there's nothing wrong with that. Featuring expressive animation aided by cutting-edge technology, terrific voice acting, and just the right amount of danger, this lovable and scrappy production has aged extremely well during that last 50+ years. Disney's new
"Diamond Edition" Blu-ray serves up a terrific A/V presentation, a handful of brand new bonus features, and most of the supplements from their own Platinum Edition DVD. Overall, it's a well-rounded package that pays tribute to this charming family classic. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.