ONE-HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1961):
Written by: Dodie Smith (novel), Bill Peet (solo)
This one’s one of the most well-remembered “Middle Period” Disney movies (and the first to be set in the modern day, actually!), owing primarily to its singularly-memorable villain; one so legendary that she’s become completely iconic. Cruella de Vil is probably in the Top Five most-remembered Disney Villains these days, which is saying something.
Altogether, the movie is a standard “Escape Flick”, as Cruella kidnaps 99 puppies for some coat of fur (and this is WAY before the “I’d rather go naked” ad campaigns & PETA’s power, mind you), and they & the parents of a group of ’em head towards home.
The original novel isn’t very well known. The Hundred and One Dalmatians features numerous characters not to make the cut in the movie, like Cruella’s husband and cat, Perdita’s original mate Prince, and more. A dark subplot about Cruella having drowned all of the cat’s unwanted kittens is therefore exiled. Perdita was called “Missis” there, as well. Heck, she and Prince actually get back together- he’s the 101st Dalmatian!
Honestly, I liked the movie as a kid, mainly because of the puppies (more on that later). The non-Cruella parts were a bit more boring when I got older, but it has one of the greater “Meet Cute” stories in the Disney canon, as Pongo & Perdita end up trapping their owners together, and the moment they begin laughing at their situation in a water fountain, the screen fades to their wedding ceremony.
Cruella de Vil is the enduring symbol of 101 Dalmatians as a franchise, and for obvious reason- this villain is ALL OVER THE PLACE, doing the exact opposite of being reserved. This is a CRAZY, iconic villain, combining every negative attribute of ugly people and poorly-fashioned people into one extremely loud package. Most of the prior villains were either hapless men, or reserved, sinister women. Cruella was instead this outgoing basket case; her psychotic driving style, crazed expressions and giant flowing fur coat making her one of the most memorable villains in history.
Cruella was so successful and popular that Milt Kahl (the most hard-to-get-along-with animator at Disney) was jealous of her designer Marc Davis, and tried to put her into The Rescuers until they settled on Madame Medusa (a clear attempt by Kahl to one-up Davis). Curiously, she doesn’t really “get hers” at the end of the film, aside from crashing her car and failing to grab the puppies. I mean, she’s still extremely rich and capable of stealing MORE puppies.
That name is just freakin’ AMAZING, though. Practically going from over-the-top cartoonish (I mean, “CRUELLA?”) to brilliantly clever.
Cruella, as I’ve said, is an icon- she still shows up in the parks as a Face Character, was the star of a live-action film, and more. She’s one of the few Disney Villains who could effortlessly maintain a Feature Film on her own, and most actresses would LOVE to perform such a gigantic ham. Victoria Smurfit was an oddly-sexy Cruella on Once Upon A Time (the actress aged REALLY well, being noticeably attractive even in her forties when I saw her at a local Comic Expo).
Her performer, Betty Lou Gerson was a radio star of some repute in the ’30s, but wasn’t in many famous things, appearing as an extra in many films and TV shows. She was the narrator in Cinderella eleven years before 101 Dalmatians, but Cruella is obviously her biggest role.
But yeah, Cruella did wonders for this film, captivating in every scene thanks to her outrageous combination of fashion sense, rage and boorish behavior. I find the animation quite poor, as it’s the start of their “Xerography” phase, post-Sleeping Beauty (since that one took YEARS to make and cost a TON of money), where everything would be done on-the-cheap, resulting in “fuzzy” character outlines and darker animation in general. Characters became more stylized without rotoscoping (unnecessary with the new style) as well, allowing for more eccentric types of character design.
Rod Taylor, who played Pongo, was actually a legitimate movie star in his own time, starring in The Birds and The Time Machine, among other memorable works.
The best bit? And the end when all the puppies show up, and Roger’s all “Pongo, YOU OLD RASCAL!” As a kid, I never really got it. As an adult, I realize Roger’s congratulating him with “HOLY CRAP YOU HAD TONS OF SEX AND MADE NINETY-NINE BABIES! Here’s to your genitals!”
The Cruella de Vil song is a big show-stopper, though I question the legality of making a tune about how much someone sucks, if that someone is actually a real person. This is why Carly Simon wrote You’re So Vain about a mystery person, and Taylor Swift doesn’t actually name her numerous celebrity boyfriends in her OH MY GOD SO F*CKING HORRIBLE pop hits. Cruella’s humiliation would no doubt cause some legal issues, particularly since she didn’t suffer the usual Disney Villain Death (ie. falling), and still knows where the puppies live.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
The movie was REALLY well-received (top ten in 1961), but would gain an almost exponential fanbase later on, culminating in a live-action remake with Glenn Close owning things as Cruella and a bunch of uber-cute real puppies as characters.
This would get its own sequel, as well as a 101 Dalmatians cartoon series (it was around the time where Disney did this a lot) featuring more Nickelodeon-styled dogs with more unique appearances. The movie was a Home Alone-type movie full of gags and injury-prone villains (it was directed by the same guy, so this was unsurprising), one of whom was Hugh Laurie aka Dr. House, and the cartoon series was kind of bad (I never liked the thing myself) and made up of the “Three Shorts” type of storytelling.
There was also a sequel animated movie featuring Patch, who was given a HUGE push despite being just another puppy in the original.
The Dalmatians franchise may be one of the most singular cash-cows for Disney as a whole, if you really think about it. The “Disney Princess” line may be bigger overall, but these things practically led to a craze on their own, and have been re-done a ridiculous number of times. The cuteness of the puppies makes for instant toy sales, and Cruella is one of Disney’s most memorable villains, despite lacking in power or even much capability, her psychopathic rage and unbelievable vanity has turned her into a cultural icon of unpleasantness.
She’s the only character from the films to STILL be a regular Face Character in the Disney Parks, for example. I even saw her in Tokyo DisneySea, with 40+ Japanese people crowding around with her trying to get their pictures taken (she made gross scowls the entire way; actors playing the villains have the BEST time). And yes, she was played by a Caucasian performer.
The movies are rather notorious for another thing, however, the occasional burst in popularity of the Dalmatian breed of dog.
See, any time a big-time “Dog Movie” comes out, that breed goes up in popularity, as these movies are targeted towards children, most of whom begin whining to their parents for the puppies that the movies usually start out with. In this case, the Dalmatians become REALLY popular around these releases (multiple original film re-releases when Disney did that every seven years or so, and the live action remake).
This produces two major problems:
1) Dog Breeders aren’t the most ethical bunch of people sometimes, and over-breeding of things like Dalmatians leads to some recurring genetic problems. Dalmatians are in fact FAMOUS for inbreeding and various other problems resulting in deafness.
2) Dalmatians are a fairly large, active breed, prone to getting physical. Add in the fact that it’s CHILDREN demanding these as pets, and you have a problem. Dalmatians have a habit of knocking children over in aggressive bursts of fun, and are thus REALLY bad pets for small children. This is often a surprise to some parents, as it’s less-commonly known. Compare this to the Beethoven film series, where most parents KNOW exactly how big that puppy will turn grow, and thus immediately say “no”. It helps that those movies are pretty much entirely about disrespectful, messy, ill-behaved giant dogs, and not cute puppies like the Dalmatians franchise.