There are few movies that take me back to my childhood the way that 101 Dalmatians does. I have been a fan of the Disney feature animation since I was a child, and let’s face it, what child isn’t? But even as a little kid, there were things that made 101 Dalmatians stand out from all the rest of the films in the Disney vault.
First, it wasn’t a musical. Yes, it had songs in it. Who could forget the jazzy theme of Cruella De Vil? But this song, and the one for the end titles, “Dalmatian Plantation,” both were a lot of fun. As a young boy, I didn’t have to suffer through a “Sing, Sweet Nightingale” ballad or “Sleeping Beauty” waltz. It was just a fun cartoon with non-stop dogs.
The other thing I loved about the film was its design. Rather than the crisp nature I’d seen in all the other Disney movies that were released before 101 Dalmatians, this film had a unique style. It’s sketchy, trendy design caught my eye, even though I was a child.
For years, up until the recent revival of Disney animation that started with The Little Mermaid, 101 Dalmatians was my favorite. Looking back on it years later, it still is.
The story is quite simple… two Dalmatians in London fall in love and bring their owners together. Together, they have a litter of puppies that are as cute as can be. But when the villainous Cruella De Vil bursts into the house demanding to buy the puppies, we know things aren’t right. Soon, the puppies are kidnapped, and it’s up to the dogs (and cats and horses and geese) in England to bring them home before Cruella makes skins them to make coats.
The genius behind 101 Dalmatians is that it manages to take a subject so grim – puppies in peril of losing their skins – and keeps it a light-hearted kids movie. At the same time, the situation in the film is dangerous enough to give a solid sense of drama.
However, probably one of the best parts of the film is the character of Cruella De Vil. In the Disney cannon, there may be an octopus woman who wants to take over the ocean, an evil sorceress that turns into a dragon and the hunters that kill Bambi’s mother, but none of these bad guys compare to the essence of evil that is Cruella De Vil.
Because it is so smartly designed and warmly stylized, 101 Dalmatians is a timeless classic. I’ve enjoyed the film for years and am now rediscovering it with my own children. After just one with the entire family, we were all humming the tune of “Cruella De Vil” around the house.
The 2-disc Platinum Edition comes with plenty of special features. In addition to a digital restoration of picture and sound (which can only really be appreciated when viewed theatrically or in high definition), there’s a music video in which Selena Gomez covers “Cruella De Vil.” Additional features on the first disc include pop-up video facts for both kids and parents that can play throughout the film.
The second disc contains a variety of behind-the-scenes information. Because 101 Dalmatians was such a breakthrough film for the studio due to its use of the new Xerox process of striking cells from the original pencil sketches, there’s a lot of material on that. Featurettes include a spotlight on how this process changed the studio, a look at the development of Cruella De Vil and a spotlight on a series of letters that Walt Disney exchanged with the original book’s author, Dodie Smith.
In addition to trailers, TV spots and radio advertising, there’s an extensive selection of alternate and deleted music numbers, for those who want to hear the “Kanine Krunchies” jingle in a dozen interpretations.
However, probably the cutest part of the double-disc set is a Virtual Dalmatian that can run off your CD-ROM. Kids can customize a Dalmatian character, feed it, make its room and teach it tricks. If your kids aren’t getting enough of WebKinz or NeoPets, here’s another outlet for them.
The Upside: One of the best Disney films ever made.
The Downside: The animation can only be fully appreciated in a theatrical print.
On the Side: Marc Davis, who designed Cruella De Vil, based the character on one of his wife’s obnoxious friends in the fashion industry.