Disney is, by now, a gargantuan media empire of parks, merchandise, and movie magic. It’s easy to forget that there were days when the studio was in desperate need of a hit. 101 Dalmatians proved to be just what the vet ordered.
The film enters the story originated from the Dodie Smith novel, by utilizing the point of view of our protagonist, the Dalmatian Pongo (Voiced by Rod Taylor). He’s intent to get his faithful “pet” Roger the songwriter hitched, in order to liven up his life a bit. His escapades eventually end in success with Roger landing Anita and Pongo winding up with Perdita. They live in a humble little home perfectly happy with the kindly maid Nanny and a litter of puppies on the way.
In walks one of Disney’s most glorious creations in Cruella De Vil, the witchiest, cruelest, villain you could ever happen to encounter. With billowing furs and long cigarette holder, her presence is hard to avoid and she’s very eager to get some puppies for her nefarious purposes.
15 little bundles of fur arrive, but Roger puts his foot down and won’t give them up. Not about to be foiled, De Vil gets her two hired cronies Jasper and Horace to swipe them. And so begins Pongo and Perdita’s journey across hill and dale to rescue their children. They utilize the “Twilight Bark” to spread the news about the missing pups to try and get any help they can.
The word spreads and they are led to an old mansion in close proximity to a shaggy sheepdog “The Colonel” and his cohorts “Captain” the horse, and “Sergeant Tibbs” an adroit tabby. Together they begin the operation to extract the pups. Although after doing recon, Tibbs realizes there are a few more hostages than he was expecting. Still, they put the plan into action trying to flee from the two menacing buffoons. Jasper and Horace look threatening but only succeed in hurting each other. Pongo and Perdita arrive just in time to lead the pilgrimage back to London, but the snow and the adversary are nearly unrelenting. It’s in these moments that the tension is built up because on one side we have 10s upon 10s of these cute puppies fleeing in the snow with Cruella De Vil hot on their cute little tails. It’s enough to make kids young and old get invested in this animated classic. The most important part is that it ends happily ever after — at least until they have to feed all those dogs.
Although the animation is certainly not their most polished effort, Disney once more develops a setting in London and the surrounding countryside that is thoroughly engaging as a visual feast for the eyes. The voice work from the likes of Rod Taylor, J. Pat O’Malley, and Betty Lou Gerson is impeccably spot on. Perhaps most importantly of all, this film gives the dogs and other creatures of interest the perfect balance of reality and anthropomorphism. And of course, the pups like Rolly, Patch, Penny, and Lucky are endearingly cute with their baby British accents. Yet another reason Cruella De Vil is so evil. How could she ever want to harm cute bundles of joy like that?
“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella De Vil”