Disney have recently released the 'Special Edition' DVD of Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians in the UK. To me this is one of the most interesting of all of the Disney Animated Classics; though I all but ignored it as a child, and its reputation has been somewhat tarnished by countless remakes and spin-offs, I now consider it to be the best animated film the Disney studio produced after their Golden Age (from 1936's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1942's Bambi). No other Disney film succeeds in sheer force of style as much as One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which makes full use of its medium; the result is an extremely graphically strong film, with a rough, linear look that seems to complement the animation rather than attempt to convince the viewer that they are watching anything but a cartoon. It takes full advantage of aspects of its medium Disney had previously seen as obstacles to be defeated.
Much of the success of the film can be attributed not to Walt Disney (who was too busy with theme parks and television shows to attend many meetings on the film, only breezing in from time to time to leave annotations on story sketches) but Bill Peet, a 'story man' many at the studio felt was close in personality to Walt himself. Perhaps this is why the two didn't get on and eventually had a rather dramatic falling out. At any rate, Walt recognised Peet's skill at creating stories and, for the first time, gave only one man the job of writing and storyboarding a feature animated film.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians remains among the best written of all of Disney's features. The tendency towards excessive sentimentality and 'chocolate-box charm' (as one reviewer called it) found in many of the Disney films of the 1950s, and of the 1990s, is mostly dropped in favour of a more satyrical mood. As a result, the few moments of pathos are given greater gravity. An aspect of Dodie Smith's book which translates very well in the film is it's amusing reversal of roles. We see this right at the beginning of the film; the audience initially assumes that the narrator is Roger, the human, only to discover that the voice is that of his dog, Pongo, who considers Roger his pet.
References continue to be made to this throughout the film. I wrote in an earlier post of earlier Disney films, such as Pinocchio, depicting nature as inferior to humanity, a state which man descends to through primitive and uncivilized behaviour. In Dalmatians this is reversed, the story being told from the dogs' point of view; Nanny, the human with the closest affinity to the dogs, is one of the most sympathetic characters, while Cruella De Vil, the film's villainess, becomes more and more bestial and savage as her schemes unravel. Like earlier villains such as the Witch in Snow White and even Count Orlock in Nosferatu, Cruella has characteristics that make her a far more wild creature than any of the animals in the film. Her claws, bony frame, manic hair and posture all evoke the image of some sort of vulture or harpy. Her car is also given bestial characteristics, both in design and sound, roaring and growling in the film's climax.
I still consider Cruella, animated exclusively by Marc Davis, to be Disney's best villain. As has previously been mentioned, she possesses bestial qualities in both design and animation; despite this; she possesses a certain elegance. Character actress Mary Wickes performed live-action reference for the character, but Davis used the footage 'sparingly'. The character is a masterpiece of design, almost blurring the line between caricature and abstraction. Davis' skill at animating female characters shines through; he had been honing his skills throughout the 1950s, but it is in animating Cruella that he appears to have the most fun and exhibit the greatest skill. It is thought by many that the work of the animators known as the 'Nine Old Men' went into a decline in their later years; Cruella De Vil, Davis' final animation job, proves that at least one of them didn't experience such a decline.
It's interesting that Walt Disney himself hated the look of the film. I suppose if, as Ken Anderson (largely responsible for the style of the film) said, 'Walt hated lines', it's rather unlikely that he would have liked the film. Nevertheless, he did 'forgive' Anderson for the lines a few weeks before his death. Anyway, whatever Walt thought of it, I find it to be one of the best animated films ever to come out of his studio.