101DalmatianscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1961, 79 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (with a border option)
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+

Kids who love Frozen owe a big thank-you to the Disney staffers who made 101 Dalmatians. Animation had grown to be such an expensive proposition that it took 600 people to bring the previous film, Sleeping Beauty, to the big screen in 1959. And so the folks who worked on 101 Dalmatians were told that they had to find a way to make an animated picture that didn’t cost so much, or Walt Disney would reluctantly pull the plug on all future animated projects. The animation staff had already been trimmed to 300, but that still wasn’t enough. What saved animation for Disney was the discovery that you could eliminate the step of “inking” the drawings by Xeroxing them directly onto acetate sheets and save one tedious and expensive step in the animation process.

That’s the backstory, but what everyone knew in 1961 was that Disney had come up with another winning animated feature that included one of the most memorable Disney villains to date: Cruella De Vil, a devil of a woman who even had her own catchy theme song. She couldn’t change herself into a dragon, like Maleficent, but her driving was frightful and her obsession—to turn cute little Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat—was as evil and monstrous as any scheme that young viewers could comprehend. Even her henchmen were memorable because they combined comic relief and true menace.

101 Dalmatians turned out to be the ninth highest grossing film of 1961, and while it didn’t do as well as two Disney live-action features (The Absent-Minded Professor and The Parent Trap), it kept Disney animation alive for future projects and future generations of viewers.

101Dalmatiansscreen1The late Roger Ebert called it “an uneven film, with moments of inspiration in a fairly conventional tale of kidnapping and rescue,” and it’s hard to dispute that. But I do take exception with Ebert’s assessment that it’s only “passable fun.” 101 Dalmatians is more than that, especially for dog lovers and families with pets—and according to the Humane Society, that’s 47 percent of all American households. The puppies are cute as the Dickens and drawn, in typical Disney fashion, from live models so that they’re incredibly realistic in their movement.  

Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) narrates the story from the very beginning, when he introduces us to his songwriting “pet” Roger, whom he believes would benefit from having a mate. When he sees the perfect one (who just happens to be “owned” by a female Dalmatian named Perdita), Pongo arranges a “meet cute” in full-blown romantic comedy style.

101Dalmatiansscreen2Yes, the minute those puppies are born 101 Dalmatians does turn into a fairly standard kidnapping and rescue story. But the Disney animators do a fine job of working within this dramatic sub-genre, all while giving us the kind of detail and characters that we’ve come to expect from Walt Disney Studios.

Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman (three of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men”) keep things moving and manage to sustain a tension throughout the film, from the moment a litter of puppies is born and they end up being held captive with 84 other “dognapped” pups. J. Pat O’Malley lends his distinctive voice to the Colonel, a dog who, with his feline pal Sgt. Tibs, leads the charge to rescue ALL of the dogs.

101 Dalmatians may not be top tier Disney, but it’s high on the second tier. Or maybe even low on the first. And it looks absolutely terrific on Blu-ray, with all-new bonus features plus some classic ones.