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Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

One Hundred and One Dalmatians © Walt Disney

Among the classic Disney films ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a rather underrated little gem. Pretty modest in its story and ambitions, the film nevertheless is a milestone in Disney animation, introducing a completely new style to Disney feature animation.

After the costly debacle of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) it was clearly time for a change, and in many respects, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. The new feature is no fairy tale, but set in contemporary times, it has an unprecedented crime plot, and it has a modern design which was a complete departure from earlier efforts, and which was fit for a more modern age.

Modern design had invaded Disney feature animation as far back as ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1945), but ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to have a modern outlook from start to end. The film is also the first Disney feature to be set in contemporary times, even if this is a little confusing: the English setting gives most of the film a vintage look, Roger Radcliffe is a jazz composer in the style of the 1930s, and Cruella drives a Mercedes Benz 500 K from the mid-1930’s. Moreover, Roger and his wife Anita may be depicted as being rather poor, at least in the eyes of Cruella de Vil, they nonetheless manage to have a maid, an anachronistic anomaly in the post-war age of television.

No, the modernity of the film is more present in it looks: ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to make use of Xeroxed cells, preserving the black outlines, which give the film a more graphic look. Initiated by art director Ken Anderson, and developed by Walt Disney old partner Ub Iwerks, the process was first tried out in the short special ‘Goliath II’ (1960), and deemed successful enough for further use. No doubt the xerox process was conceived to save money, and the process is particularly helpful in this particular film, which its 101 duplicate puppies, which are essentially black and white characters, anyway. Yet, the method preserved the rough animation outlines, which were more vivid than the cleaned up cells, and the xeroxed cells give the animation an extra swinging touch. Indeed, the new process was a hit with the animators themselves, who, for the first time, saw their own drawings directly on the animated screen.

Iwerks even managed to xerox a cardboard model of Cruella’s car with marked black outlines. Thus, in the film Cruella’s car is essentially rotoscoped. This experimental method also accounts for the only unconvincing special effect in the film: during the finale Cruella’s car gets stuck in the snow. This scene was filmed using the cardboard model and real sand, and unfortunately the photographed sand is clearly visible, as its roughness deviates from the otherwise very clean artwork. Moreover, one can see this piece of xeroxed live action move on top of the background art.

Never mind the cost reduction of the xerox process, the depiction of 101 dalmatians could only be done at Disney’s at the time: as all the dogs’ spots had to be animated independently. The studio set up a sole unit for this task alone. No wonder, as Pongo alone has no less than 76 spots!

In ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, the xerox cells are matched by xeroxed background art lines by e.g. Ernie Nordli, which make an ideal match with the background paintings by Walt Peregoy, with its bold coloring: the results are very intricate, very graphical, yet stylized, decorative and very appealing backgrounds, which belong to the most artful ever produced, and which give the film its unique look. The new style, with its original mix of depth and flatness, works best in the urban setting, with all its straight lines. The scenes in the countryside have a more traditional feel, and are more akin to earlier artwork by e.g. Mary Blair.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney himself disliked this background art, most probably because they are devoid of any romanticism. The xeroxed animation works particularly well with these graphic backgrounds. Yet the latter were not repeated, while xeroxed animation lasted until the mid-1980’s. By that time the style had become jaded, and gotten a cheap feel and outdated feel. No wonder, Don Bluth chose to go back to painted cells in his nostalgic feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982). Nonetheless, in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ the xeroxed cells look fresh and modern, and they certainly contribute to the film’s timeless appeal.

That ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a new, less pretentious and more fun film than ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been, becomes immediately clear in the startlingly modern opening credits, with its visual puns on spots. This sole sequence itself is a sheer delight, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The introduction uses a voice over by Pongo (Rod Taylor), Roger’s Dalmatian dog, and tells how he managed to get Roger and Anita meet each other, acting like a canine matchmaker. As Anita has a female Dalmatian dog, Perdita, this event also marks the welcome end to Pongo’s bachelor life.

Soon, Perdita is pregnant, and gives birth to no less than fifteen puppies. This event introduces the arch villain of the movie: Cruella de Vil, apparently an old schoolmate of Anita. Cruella must be the all time best of Disney villains: she’s both ridiculously outlandish and genuinely menacing. Her voice by Betty Lou Gerson is spot on, giving her the perfect mix of class, disdain, selfishness and temper. The voice is matched by Marc Davis’s design and animation, which give the character an unprecedented screen presence: Cruella has the energy of a Stromboli, the deftness of a captain Hook, and the icy coldness of a Malificent all rolled in one, and then some. She’s the undisputed star of the film: a villain one loves to hate, from her first entry until her last lunatic car ride.

This was the last animation Marc Davis did before he moved over to designing for Disney parks. Cruella de Vil can be seen as his masterpiece, and is his impressive farewell to animation. She undoubtedly inspired several subsequent Disney villains, like Medusa in ‘The Recuers’ (1978), Jafar in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and Yzma in ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000).

Cruella de Vil may be an animation highlight, all of the animation in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is excellent. Led by six of Disney’s nine old men, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ shows that these veteran animators were on top of their game. Roger and Anita (animated by Milt Kahl) have the perfect mix of caricature and realism, and make a believable real couple, if not a too memorable one. Likewise, Horace and Jasper, the pair of crooks that function as Cruella’s henchmen, have that great combination of silliness and threat, which make them so lovely to watch. The dogs are all good, and it’s clear that the animators could rely on years of experience on this particular mix of naturalism and anthropomorphism, dating back to ‘Bambi’ (1942), but of course most notably to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1956), which also features numerous dogs. Indeed, Jock, Peg, Bull and Lady herself can all be seen during the ‘twilight bark’ scene, one of the highlights of the film.

As if to illustrate how for the animators had come, Disney shows a short excerpt from the Silly Symphony ‘Springtime’ (1929) on television in a scene in the old De Vil mansion. The old short provides the score for a large part of this scene.

Highly unusually, the film’s story was storyboarded by one man only: Bill Peet, and his story is a prime example of lean storytelling: there’s absolutely no unnecessary fat on this film, which moves to the grand finale on an excellent speed, with an increasing sense of danger. Thus, the film is over before you know it. Even better, Peet manages to tell the story without relying on too obvious story tropes – for example, in a modern version Pongo doubtless would estrange his friends, or break down in doubt just before the start of the finale. None of that in this movie! Even Dodie Smith, who had written the original book in 1956, thought Peet had improved on her story.

Apart from the Twilight Bark scenes, other highlights are the soot scenes in the mythical village of Dinsford, and the preceding scenes at Suffolk, featuring ‘The Colonel’, a very British and rather deaf sheepdog (voiced by Pat O’Malley), and his brave tabby cat Sergeant Tibbs. These scenes made me laugh out loud.

Apart from its modern looks and setting ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is remarkable for its surprisingly lack of songs. With ‘Bambi’ this feature is the only classic Disney feature not to be a musical. In fact, there are only two (not counting a silly song accompanying a commercial for dog food on television), which is the more remarkable, as Roger Radcliffe is supposed to be a songwriter. Indeed, Roger sings both songs: first one about Cruella de Vil, just before she enters herself, and the second one at the film’s Christmas finale. This second song, ‘Dalmatian plantation’ lasts only 25 seconds, before dissolving back into the background score. This score, by George Bruns, is another departure from earlier Disney features: Bruns’s score is less lush, more brassy and more jazzy than previous scores, and matches the scenes very well.

In all, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is an undisputed highlight within the Disney canon: the film is forward looking and unpretentious, modern and timeless, exciting and funny, all at the same time. Indeed, the feature did well at the box office, evaporating the studio’s deficit of 1960. With ‘Jungle Book’ the film certainly is the best of Disney’s feature output from the 1960s and 1970s, and even if the feature heralded a less classy era, the film itself is one of sheer delight that can withstand the wear of ages.

Watch the trailer for ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 21, 1960
Rating: ★★
Review:

Goliath II © Walt Disney‘Goliath II’ is a slow and gentle children’s film, penned by storyman Bill Peet, about a tiny elephant, who is the shame of the herd, until he bravely defeats a cocky mouse, which scares all the others away.

With its fifteen minutes of length, Reitherman’s all too relaxed timing, George Bruns’s uninspired score, and studio favorite Sterling Holloway’s dull narration, ‘Goliath II’ is one of the most boring of the Disney specials. Moreover, there are several instances of reused animation (e.g. the tiger from ‘Tiger Trouble’ (1945), the crocodile from ‘Peter Pan’, and an owl from ‘Bambi‘), giving the film a rather cheap look.

Nevertheless, ‘Goliath II’ is a milestone, as it is the first animated film to exploit the xerox technique on cel animation, an innovation developed by Ub Iwerks in the 1950s. The xerox process meant the characters needn’t be retraced by the ink department, and could keep their vibrant animated lines, giving them a more graphic look. For better or worse, the xerox technique dominated Disney animation up to the late 1980s. By then it had long lost its charm, and was finally discarded (‘The Little Mermaid’ is the first film in the new style).

The xerox technique, combined with Reitherman’s direction, the film’s setting and elephant characters, make ‘Goliath II’ a forerunner of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967). The short even introduces the gag in which the elephants are forced to stop their march, and fall on top of each other.

Despite the new techniques, and fine animation, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Goliath II’, but I would like to single out the extraordinary background paintings by Richard H. Thomas, Gordon Legg and Thelma Witmer, which schematically indicate a jungle without going into too much detail.

Watch ‘Goliath II’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Goliath II’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Directors: Bill Justice & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: August 28, 1957
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Truth about Mother Goose © Walt DisneyThis fifteen minute short tells about the historical origin of three nursery rhymes: ‘Little Jack Horner’, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ and ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

Each rhyme is first sung in quasi-jazzy style by the The Page Cavanaugh Trio, then a voice over takes over, telling the real stories. The presentation is rather dour, with only a few rather poor attempts at gags. These ‘gags’ are at times uneasily at odds with the grave subject matter, like the tragic fate of Mary, queen of Scots or the London fire of 1666. In fact, the short is quite educational, but also remarkably boring, and fails to entertain.

The short is noteworthy, however, for its very intricate background art, e.g. by Eyvind Earle. Unfortunately, against these elaborate backgrounds the rather angular characters don’t read very well. In this respect ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ foreshadows the problems of ‘Sleeping Beauty‘ (1959). The design is stylized and baroque, but not very elegant, except for some silhouette scenes in the Queen Mary episode, which combine blacks and blues in an graceful way, reminiscent of the color scheming in ‘Cinderella‘ (1951).

Nevertheless, the background art is far more interesting than the animation, and several shots contain little or no animation at all. The best animation goes to two knights in a tournament, otherwise a rather superfluous scene, adding little to the narrative.

The short is further hampered by the ugly, uninspired music, and consequently, ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’ must be regarded as one of the weakest of all Disney one-shots, despite the clear effort that went into the film.

Watch ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 16, 1955
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lady and the Tramp © Walt Disney‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a mild and friendly film based both on story ideas by Joe Grant that went as far back as 1939, and a short story by novelist Ward Greene. It tells the story of Lady, an upper class female Cocker Spaniel living around the turn of the century.

Lady’s life of luxury seems to be threatened by the coming of a baby, but it is the babysitter, aunt Sarah, who’s her real nemesis. The cat-loving old lady quickly has Lady muzzled, and it’s up to the tramp to rescue her. They spend a night out together, but in the morning, while they’re chasing chickens “together”, Lady gets caught and ends in the city dogpound. There she discovers that the tramp is quite a ladies’ man. It seems their short-lived relationship is over, but then the tramp helps her catching a rat that has sneaked into the house and into the baby’s room…

‘Lady and the Tramp’ was the first animated feature in Cinemascope. The film uses the new technique to great effects, with the action carefully laid out to the broad screen. Its backgrounds are very beautiful, and remarkably lush or, when necessary, highly dramatic. Only in the love scene they become somewhat stylized, showing a Mary Blair influence otherwise absent from the film.

The high quality animation is a delight to watch and stands out in an age of stylized and limited animation, something the 1950s more and more became to be. Like the animals in ‘Bambi‘ (1942), the dogs have a look and feel of real animals, while, at the same time, being full characters one can relate to, with a complete range of human expressions. Even the minor characters, like the dogs in the dogpound, are perfectly animated in that respect. The voices help in this dualism, often being a combination of human and dog-like sounds.

The humans, on the other hand, are hardly seen, and only the strongly caricatured ones, Aunt Sarah, Tony and Joe, have something of a character. It is telling that the most famous and probably most romantic kiss in animation history can be seen in this movie and is a kiss between two dogs. In this scene Lady and the tramp share a meal of spaghetti, accompanied by romantic music by the two Italian restaurant owners. This scene, animated by Frank Thomas, is the undisputed highlight of the film. Honorable mention goes to the very lifelike fight between the tramp and a large rat, a strongly dramatic scene animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, which can compete with the fighting scene in ‘Bambi’ in its impact.

Watch the dining scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lounsberry, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens
Release Date:
 June 22, 1977
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Rescuers © Walt Disney‘The Rescuers’ was a joint venture of an old and a new generation of animators at the Disney studio. It is without doubt the best of the three features the studio made in the seventies.

It was Disney’s first feature film since ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians‘ (1961) in which Wolfgang Reitherman shared the direction duties, and this fact alone arguably improves the end product.

Unlike the earlier features ‘The Aristocats’ (1970) and ‘Robin Hood‘ (1973) it doesn’t contain any reused animation (with a possible exception of animation from ‘Bambi‘ in a minor mood scene). And while ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘Robin Hood’ relied on proven formulas, both being very reminiscent of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967), ‘The Rescuers’ has a fresh story (based on a children’s book by Margery Sharp), and a unique, surprisingly gloomy atmosphere. In Sharp’s book the mice rescue a prisoner, but for the film the Disney story men chose an orphan girl named Penny to be rescued. A masterstroke, for the lovable little girl easily becomes the center of the story, which contains a lot of heart.

However, all the film’s main characters are adorable: the lovely Hungarian mouse Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her companion, the superstitious yet valiant janitor Bernard are such great characters that they were able to spawn Disney’s first sequel, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ in 1990. Medusa is a real and wonderful villain. She hasn’t got any special powers and at times she’s portrayed as preposterous, but mostly she’s sly, mean and genuinely scary: a worthy adversary for our heroes to deal with. She was animated by Milt Kahl, the last and arguably best piece of animation he ever did for the studio.

Medusa may steal the show, but even the minor characters like Orville the Albatross, Rufus the cat, Evenrude the damselfly, Snoops and the two Alligators are delightful. They all contribute to a story, which is concise and well-told. It evolves without delays or side-ways, and leads to a great finale in Devil’s Bayou.

‘The Rescuers’ is also the first Disney feature since ‘Bambi’ (1942) not to be a musical, but to use songs to evoke moods only. All these elements contribute to a story which is both thrilling and moving. The film’s opening credits use a song and beautiful oil paintings by Mel Shaw to start the story. Unfortunately, the background paintings in the rest of the movie are more prosaic, mixing moody oil paintings with more graphic backgrounds to an uneven effect. The animation on the other hand is superb throughout.

Unfortunately, ‘The Rescuers’ proved more of a swansong of the old generation of nine old men than the beginning of a new era. The following features were much weaker, and only with ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney found a genuinely new and strong voice. Thus stands ‘The Rescuers’ as a beacon of light in the dark ages of animation that were the 1970s and 1980s.

Watch the trailer of’The Rescuers’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date:
 November 8, 1973
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robin Hood © Walt Disney‘Robin Hood’ was Walt Disney studio’s 21st feature. The film’s story and designs lean heavily on the 1938 feature ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, starring Errol Flynn.

But by now the characters are portrayed as animals, a relic of an abandoned feature film project about Reynard the fox called ‘Chanticleer’. This great idea doesn’t lead to a great film, however. Despite the fine character designs, the strong voice cast and the often superb animation, Robin Hood must be placed among the weaker Disney features.

Many of the character designs are so reminiscent of those in ‘Jungle Book’, the film almost feels like a rip-off. There’s a bear, voiced by Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, there’s a snake with the power of hypnosis and there are some funny vultures. The story evolves at a remarkably slow pace, with some sort of plot only setting in after 29 minutes. More than any earlier Disney feature ‘Robin Hood’ seems particularly aimed at children: both great drama and great comedy are absent and danger is never really felt. The great finale is anything but that, and King Richard serves as an off-stage Deus ex machina, putting an equally welcomed as unsatisfying end to the film.

In a 1973 letter to animator Larry Ruppel, cited in John Canemaker’s book ‘Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation’, animator Frank Thomas expressed the film’s shortcomings:

“We obviously decided to keep it on the ‘fun’ side, but I have worried that the audiences would feel it was too flimsy – that we were not being quite serious enough with our characters. For instance, does anyone really fear Prince John? Is Robin ever worried about his ability to achieve something or even how it should be done? Did winning Maid Marian make any difference in Robin’s behavior. In real life it would have.”

The rather tinned music doesn’t help, either. Even worse, the film’s three forgettable songs are all presented within a twelve minutes period of the film (0’46-0’58), and the dance scene blatantly reuses complete dance animation sequences from ‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Jungle Book’ (1967) and ‘Aristocats’ (1970). All these aspects give the film a cheap feel. It frustrated younger animators like Don Bluth, who thought the film lacked both quality and soul, and it indirectly led to Bluth’s departure in 1979, during the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

The film’s only real treat is King John. This is by all means a marvelous character, perfectly voiced by Peter Ustinov. Because of the film’s strong visuals (after all, it’s the only Robin Hood film starring foxes), the film fares better in memory than by actually watching it.

In all, Robin Hood is a sad feature, which makes painfully clear that in the seventies Disney’s glory days lay years behind. Indeed, it would take the studio another fifteen years to crawl out of the uncertain times the studio went through after Walt Disney’s death.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Robin Hood’ and tell me what you think:

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