Alt Title: Why 101 Dalmatians Looks So Off, and How It Changed Disney
101 Dalmatians exists as an iconic yet idiosyncratic film in the Disney catalog, representing a transitional period for the studio as it began reconciling its fairytale legacy with new technologies and a changing film landscape. On the surface, the 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians fits cohesively into Disney’s filmography as another fun and charming storybook adaptation. Indeed, the author of said story would later say in a letter to Walt Disney that, while she wrote the book, she hoped Disney would reach out to create such an adaptation. By this point, Disney had established its brand— established that they make fun and charming storybook adaptations and had been for decades. They had accomplished the insurmountable goal of producing feature-length animated films, but had done so for so long that such an accomplishment had lost its novelty. After experiencing multiple box office disappointments, it became clear that something had to change— they needed to refashion their films into a more contemporary version of their image without relinquishing what made them unique. Therefore, their seventeenth animated feature, 101 Dalmatians, became the experimental proof of concept not just for how Disney would make animated films thereafter, but whether they should continue with animation at all.
However, before discussing 101 Dalmatians, it remains imperative to understand the context of the film. Although Disney’s rise— referred to as its Golden Age (from 1937 – 1942) by fans— saw the gamble of releasing a feature-length animated film not only paying off but skyrocketing the company to great success, the following would be considerably more tumultuous. The Wartime Era (from 1943-1949), and sometimes also referred to as the Package Era) saw Disney attempting to maintain their upward trajectory while simultaneously reconciling the challenges brought upon by its time, especially World War II. Thus, the studio reeled back the scope of their feature film productions, and, in retrospect, these films define themselves by those limitations. Whereas the Golden Age consisted predominantly of feature adaptations of fantastical fairy tales, the Wartime Era primarily used short films packaged into one feature to reach a full length. Saludos Amigos, the first film in the Wartime Era, stands out as a particularly notorious case as it remains the shortest feature-length Disney animated film at forty-two minutes in length— barely making it two minutes over the bar to reach feature-length. Additionally, Saludos Amigos was also one of the first Disney films to utilize funding from the United States government during the titular wartime, specifically produced to promote FDR’s Good Neighbor foreign policy. These trends would begin a pattern of Disney’s films adopting a more utilitarian and prognostic approach as the company took on more projects overseen by the American government, including producing propaganda. Hence, the comparatively less ambitious approach to their films has led some fans to see this as a dark period in the company’s filmography. Granted, the ambitions of the Wartime Era— continue growing the influence of the largest animation studio ever despite dwindling financial resources and literal world war— also remained considerably high. Yet, the substantial difference resides in how the aspirations of the Golden Age were creative-driven while the Wartime Era’s were industrial.
The ethos of the Wartime Era consequently makes the subsequent Silver Age all the more fascinating. The Silver Age (from 1950-to 1967) saw Disney moving away from the package format of the Wartime Era and back to the high budget adaptational approach of the Golden Age. The Silver Age acted as a return to form following the consternation of the Wartime Era, and, beginning with the release of Cinderella in 1950, the gamble had initially paid off again. Additionally, Walt Disney himself would— during this time— begin to shift his focus from animation to extend the Disney brand into other creative avenues. This initiative included expanding by producing live-action films (beginning with 1950’s Treasure Island) and the opening of Disneyland in 1955— both of which would lead to Walt taking a more hands-off approach to the production of the company’s animated films. However, the Silver Age encountered its own complications; and although iconic in the Disney catalog, both Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty underperformed financially. Sleeping Beauty’s 1959 release particularly hurt the company because of its massive $6 million budget, making it the most expensive animated film at the time of its release, with its flop contributing to Disney filing a financial loss in 1960; and consequently leading to mass layoffs. Within this context, Disney’s following animated feature had to refashion itself to the growing sensibilities of audiences to prove that animation remained a viable avenue for the studio.
In response to these developing trends, the 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians radically changed how Disney approached filmmaking, both in its narrative and production. An adaptation of the Dodie Smith book of the same name, 101 Dalmatians follows a pair of Dalmatians who set out to rescue their kidnapped puppies and (unrelated) eight-four other pups from the clutches of the evil Cruella de Vil— a play on words that took me an embarrassingly long time to get. Immediately, the film sets itself apart from previous Disney features by utilizing a then-contemporary urban English setting. Overall, the film incorporates its modernity as a comfortable aspect of its setting— containing scenes of the characters cozily crowding around a black and white television set or overlooking the neon-lit city streets from a window. Granted, this thereupon adds a datedness— such as unfortunate inclusions of casual misogyny and racism (eg. a brief inclusion of Flowers and Trees on a television), as well as a bizarre scene where the Dalmatian couple have to get dog-married before they can have children (which was very funny)— do permeate the work in an incognizable but occasionally lingering way. That said, the filmmakers do an excellent job of realizing their environment, in part accomplished through its score. The soundtrack of 101 Dalmatians finds a middle ground between the typical grand orchestral suite of other Disney films and jaunty jazz pieces that help to highlight both the hustle and bustle of characters’ city life, as well as the individuality of the film itself. Indeed, the film never foregoes the whimsy expected of Disney but rather applies that same playfulness to a more modern setting.
Moreover, the film’s production also carried its own process of adapting to modernity. Following the financial disappointment of Sleeping Beauty, Disney allowed the team working on 101 Dalmatians a considerably lessened budget— comparatively nearly-halving it from $6 million to $3.6 million. Therefore, the animators began experimenting with the different techniques that could simultaneously provide the film with a distinctive look and a cost-saving edge. The most notable of these techniques remains their utilization of Xerography— an early form of photocopying— in place of the traditional inking process. Typically, the animators would work on the pencil drawings of the animation; and then send those drawings to the inking and coloring department, who would painstakingly trace the outlines and paint in the colors for each frame of animation. Xerography simplified the process by xeroxing/ scanning the lines of the pencil drawings to create a copy. Admittedly, Xerography brought with it a unique set of complications; Xerography’s limited color display (of no colors displayed) disallowed colored outlines, and the usually unkempt state of the pencil drawings compared to inking made for a much rougher aesthetic. However, I’d personally argue in favor of this aesthetic and its artistic merit; the looser, often jittery texture of the lines gives the film an especially lively feel that perfectly matches the caricature style of character design and the exaggeratedly-expressive naturalism of the character animation. Additionally, I generally prefer styles of art and animation that put the effort of the artist on display as a piece of the work in itself— whether it’s grungier textures like what’s presented here, their predecessors in the heavy brushwork of Impressionists and Fauvists, or more contemporary equivalents like indie web animation or low-poly CG. In that way, the linework in 101 Dalmatians acts as a precursor to line stuttering aesthetics in the digital animations of Newgrounds and YouTube. It helps give the art a lived-in feeling, and I loved noticing all the small nuances and imperfections left in the outlines, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Moreover, the filmmakers’ creative use of paper models exists as another innovative animation technique experimented with within the film. Of course, using live-action reference footage, or rotoscoping/ tracing live-action footage, has persisted as a tool artists use to create animated performances even since 1930s animations like Betty Boop and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. However, 101 Dalmatians takes a step further for scenes of complex objects like vehicles by implementing the xerography technique to live-action footage of stylized paper models. The resulting composite allowed the animators to create a lengthy and elaborate car chase scene at the film’s climax while maintaining a low cost. As such, this sequence illustrates the artistic ethos of the film— to not just demonstrate the same whimsy and bombast as their Golden Age counterparts but to translate those aspects into a more cost-efficient and innovative style that improved the process of animation on every level.
When 101 Dalmatians released in 1961, it became an instant hit with both audiences and critics— much to the disbelief of Walt Disney. Although Walt’s focus on other projects limited his producorial involvement in the film, he expressed great hesitancy throughout development, particularly having grievances with the looser and more impressionistic art direction. Nonetheless, the film went on as a financial success and a blueprint for later Disney films, with animators continuing to refine Xerography. Although limited by its circumstance, 101 Dalmatians remains an exceptionally made and highly influential film in animation because of how it used its limitations to challenge the foundation of the animation process and create an aesthetic all its own.