I didn't appreciate, back then, the incredible amount of work it took to put all those little black spots in just the right places, or the sheer artistry of the brilliant opening credits sequence. Back then, I saw the film as my own kids see it today -- just a great story, full of suspense and humor, full of cute, cuddly spotted puppies, and anchored by one of the greatest villains ever to grace a cinema screen, Cruella De Vil.
Watching the film over again as an adult, I appreciated all those things about the film that went over my head when I was a kid. 101 Dalmatians was a major departure for Disney; it was the first time the company had made a feature film out of a story that wasn't a classic fairy tale. Unlike the lush, hand-painted films that came before it -- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinnochio, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty -- Dalmatians is all hard, black edges. Watching the film with a better appreciation of its history gives you a completely different perspective on the film. Luckily, the two-disc set includes a history lesson on the Disney animation department and the factors that led to the film's unique look.
The newly released Platinum 2-disc set includes a few extra features for the kids, but those are mostly disappointing. In one game, which appears to be about teaching numbers in English, the woman doing the voiceover speaks in the kind of slow, deliberate voice you tend to hear on language cassettes. Even my four-year-old lost interest very quickly in the features offered on the second disc, and was ready to just watch the film again. It's a shame, really, because they could have done up some cool games for the kiddie set based on the story, but what is on there seems pretty half-hearted.
That said, the real treasure in the set (aside from the film itself, of course, which looks gorgeous) are the interviews with Disney animators, both those who worked on the film, and those whose own work has been influenced by it. It's remarkable to watch everything that went into the making of a film that I've taken for granted for most of my life: the way the animators brought the dogs to life, giving them human characteristics and individual personalities; the attention to little details that makes the backgrounds fit so well with the black-lined characters; the sheer hugeness of Cruella's personality, brought so vividly to life by one of Disney's Nine Old Men, Marc Davis; the brilliant score by George Bruns, who went on to score The Jungle Book, The Aristocats and Robin Hood, among many other things. Note, for example, in the scene where the snow is falling on the soot-covered puppies, threatening to reveal their spotted coats to Cruella, how the music punctuates the intensity of the scene without resorting to heavy-handedness.
I'd always just assumed the black line art used in 101 Dalmatians was there by design; it was, but only in a roundabout way. The studio was hurting financially after Sleeping Beauty, and needed to find a way to make an animated film for less money. They'd tried out using the Xerox technology to transfer line art to cells in the dragon sequence of Sleeping Beauty, but 101 Dalmatians would be the first time an entire film had been done that way. If you look at Sleeping Beauty with an animator's eye, you'll note that the lines are colored: the lines in Aurora's hair are hand-painted golden, the lines around her lips are shades of red, the lines of her dress blue and pink. Not so with Dalmatians, where everything has a crisp, abstract look defined by the black lines used to draw both characters and background.
This, of course, was necessitated by the use of the Xerox to copy the line art to the cells, rather than having line artists hand-draw each cell; the Disney animators simply found a way to work within that restriction to create a look for the film that worked then, and still holds up now, over 40 years later. It's a look that is at once classic and contemporary, and it defined the future of animation in such a way that still has an impact today. Interestingly, one thing I learned from the bonus material is that Walt Disney himself hated the look of the film; he wasn't quite ready to let go of the watercolor-beauty of the studio's hand-painted films.
Art director Ken Anderson says in an interview on the second disc that Disney didn't forgive him for the look of the film until a couple weeks before he died. It's ironic, given that the film is now considered a gold-standard of sorts by animators, that the biggest name in animation at the time didn't fully appreciate it. With this new release, though, a whole generation of kids, perhaps some future animators among them, will fall in love with 101 Dalmatians themselves, and someday their work will reflect the foundation the team behind this film laid in its inception and creation. And maybe somewhere, Walt Disney looks back on 101 Dalmatians now, and sees where animation has gone in the decades since, and smiles.