06 May 2012

Disney Daze: Week 17: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week (except when he falls behind because he was at Disneyland).

Despite the debt the studio incurred after the lavish Sleeping Beauty failed at the box office, Walt Disney vowed to keep the animation department open even though it had become one of the least profitable divisions of his ever-expanding company. The man who constantly reminded everyone that it all started with a mouse, knew all too well that Disney was synonymous with animation and while the studio expanded to live action features, television, and theme parks, they needed to retain their core identity. Unfortunately retaining the animation division was different than maintaining the animation division, and post-Sleeping Beauty saw the largest downsizing in the company's history. The animated features from here on out would have to be made quickly and inexpensively. Half decades could not be spent tinkering on stories or toying with new processes.

Interestingly enough a new process called xerography is what enabled all of this change to come about. Developed by the largely unsung Ub Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse with Walt and drew almost the entirety of the early shorts himself, xerography was a process that allowed the animators' original drawings to be photocopied, or Xeroxed, directly onto animation cels. This negated the need for a department to ink the sketches to cels, therefore cutting labor costs significantly. The process resulted in a whole new look for Disney films, where looser designs prevailed, as the animators' style made it onscreen intact. Walt himself did not like the sketchy new look but by this time his involvement with animation was nominal and he understood the economic necessity of such a timesaver. In particular, the studio's first feature to be produced with xerography, would benefit greatly from the process as it required the design of a hundred spotted dogs.  

The title sequence in One Hundred and One Dalmatians is both my favorite of all the Disney features as well as the best section of the whole film. It begins with a splash of spots being sprayed on myriad hand drawn hounds.  With a hip, jazzy flourish, the title briefly appears only to be washed away with yet more spots. Other credits are shaved offscreen like fur. Some title cards become both an extension of the dog theme and a whimsical translation of the title being displayed. For example, a series of spots transform themselves into moving musical notes to herald the work of George Bruns, the orchestration of Franklin Marks, and songs of Mel Leven. The layout artists' page is literally laid out before us. The sequence takes up a full three minutes and is worth every frame.

Of course, praising the credit sequence as the best moment in any film is nothing if not a backhanded compliment. Luckily One Hundred and One Dalmatians has more going for it than just the title design. The introductions of the main players in the film, the dogs Pongo and Perdita and their "pets" Roger and Anita, are charming. We pan across a beautifully designed London landscape before zooming into Roger's cluttered apartment. He is toiling away at the piano while Pongo looks out the window searching for a mate for his guardian. Here we get a lovely sequence of prospective brides, all parading down the boulevard with their dogs, each an identical caricature of their guardian. The joke is rather obvious but the execution is well done. 

Soon Pongo espies Perdita and Anita heading for the park and he tricks Roger into taking him for a walk. The meet-cute of these two couple is another solid piece of animation, with great set-ups and a pleasing pay-off as Pongo causes all manner of disturbance to get his dreamer of a guardian to notice the comely woman reading on a park bench. As these things usually go, this ultimately involves dunking them both in a lake. The best part of this scene is the animators' work on Pongo's facial expressions as he sees his plan coming together. His tongue out, open-mouthed joy is particularly infectious.

From here we flash forward to domestic life as the two couples, both canine and human, now reside under the same roof. Perdita is pregnant and this news warrants a visit from the devious, ghoulish villain Cruella de Vil, who gets a phenomenal introduction as Roger composes a jazzy song detailing her devilish traits. The musical sequence is perfectly animated, showing Cruella's silhouette approaching the front door as Roger calls her "a spider waiting for the kill" and suddenly the window frame looks just like a web with Cruella standing in the center. She then barges in and gives the audience a tour-de-force in villainy. Cruella de Vil is vile, vicious, and vain. While most animation on One Hundred and One Dalmatians was collaborative, with several animators sharing characters, the great Marc Davis, one of Disney's heralded Nine Old Men, was solely in charge of Cruella. And what a hell of a job he did. Dalmations would be Davis's swan song in animation as Walt moved him over to Disneyland where he left his indelible mark on the designs of such attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Cruella in fact looks eerily like a distant cousin of the latter attraction's infamous Hatbox Ghost.

Shortly hereafter Perdita has fifteen pups who are subsequently stolen by Cruella's dimwitted henchmen and taken to a run down mansion in the English countryside where they will be kept along with dozens more dalmatians until they're fully grown and slaughtered for their fur. Charming. Regrettably just as the plot kicks in, the film for the most part loses itself. There are a number of factors for the film's failings. There is very little effort on the directors' or animators' part to distinguish between any of the puppies, besides the fat one who is always hungry. This gives us nothing tangible to latch onto in moments of danger. Of course, the thought of a puppy perishing should be reason enough for dramatic tension but it simply doesn't work in practice with so many interchangeable dogs running around. On Snow White we spend ample time with the seven dwarfs, and while their personalities are basically the descriptions inherent in their names, we become attached to them. Another problem with the film's latter half is pacing. There is only a short amount of screen time spent getting the dognapped puppies to the mansion and for Pongo and Perdita to travel through the country to retrieve them. However the journey back takes twice as long and becomes nothing more than tedious since we are never given an idea of how much ground has been traveled nor how much is left to go. Therefore it becomes quite a shock when the animals return home and we discover that they've been gone over a month. Onscreen it plays out like two long days and nights. 

One Hundred and One Dalmatians has a few special treats but fails to live up to the best in Disney animation. Some of the best moments are the most fleeting. Twice in the film we get glimpses of television programming that are deliriously surreal. The first program is watched by the puppies at home and is a typical 1950s-style western with a dog in the hero's role. The interesting moment comes with the commercial that follows. The product advertised is a snack called Kanine Krunchies and features a whacked-out, warped jingle with sparse line drawn animation. Why was screen time given to a dozen dogs watching a black-and-white television? Is this some sort of social commentary? Later in the film at Cruella's decrepit mansion, the thugs Jaspar and Horace are transfixed watching their favorite game show "What's My Crime?" wherein criminals are trotted out before well-to-do contestants who try and guess their infractions. It is moments like these that stick out with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, when a little bit of personality and casual weirdness peek out from the spotted blur.

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