Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DATE Night: 101 Dalmatians

First off I want to say to any of my regular blog readers that I am grateful for your patience and kindness. As you can tell from my post on The Muppets, life is a bit on the challenging side for me right now and I needed to take a brief siesta of sorts to recharge. This blog has been a passion project from go and a way for me to flex some creative muscles that I was afraid would atrophy, but, when all is said and done, it's just lil' ole me. One dude behind a computer sending his Disney musings out on the interwebs and hoping that some people find enjoyment in them. I've even had the pleasure of guest blogging on This Happy Place blog about Walt Disney, the man, for their Walt Wednesdays series (Please check the posts out- one is on Walt and trains, another is a review of a documentary about his life and the most recent is on the WWWD- what would Walt do?- phenomenon) and I hope to keep contributing to blogs outside of my own in the Disney blogging community. Moved by the Mouse ain't going nowhere, but I have made a promise to myself that won't get into a tizzy over my own self-imposed deadlines, as I am sometimes wont to do. I have enough work at work. This blog is all about joy, connection and fun. So how bout this...you promise to keep reading and I promise to keep writing, ok?

Way to milk the "one" pun.
Our DATE Nights are especially important to me and I will keep watching one Disney animated classic every week. I will continue to post my blogs about them as soon after watching as I can. So let's get down to business (to defeat the Huns). After spending last week with Sleeping Beauty, we are doing a complete one-eighty and taking a look at 101 Dalmatians. Storybook to modern. Precise to sketchy. It really is a changing of the guard artistically, even if many of the nine old men were still behind the pencils. This movie is both a new beginning and the beginning of the end for Disney animation's second golden age. The technological innovations discovered (Xeroxing) would be utilized only because they were economical, forgetting that they work so well here because they serve the story so well. Gone is hand inking of lines on cels and the department that went with it, and it's sad. (If you want proof, take another look at Aurora. Even something as basic as the the hand-inked lines of her hair are in another shade of gold. The inking is exquisitely done and treated as an important part of the whole.) For now, though, let's rejoice in the fact that with 101 Dalmatians, the Xerox line is just as beautifully rendered an artistic statement and that the film as a whole is a complete triumph!

The Background:

Pongo standing guard at the All Star Movies
Resort in Orlando.
101 Dalmatians sits at a very odd juncture in Disney history. Sleeping Beauty had been a extravagant artistic masterpiece but commercially was met with a resounding "meh". Out of necessity, drastic cuts were made in the animation department, leaving them with a fraction of the talented team that they had. By this point, Walt himself was also busying himself with other projects. Live action films were becoming more and more prevalent on the studio's slate. The Disney presence on television, which Walt was wise enough to embrace early, was now secure and significant. And above all else, Walt turned his attentions to Disneyland, which was by now a bonafide smash. Animated films were now no longer the entire meal, but one of many cups in the Lunchables tray.

By using the Xerox process, which Ub Iwerks adapted to use in animation, the animators were able to cut costs significantly. The creators of the film were faced with a challenge that forced them to adapt their process in a way that was both artistically robust and economically feasible and, bless their souls, they were able to do so. Walt, however, was not terribly happy with the look of the film. Considering that this would be the overarching aesthetic for Disney animated features for the foreseeable future, you can only assume that Walt would have been none too pleased. Critics and audiences, on the other hand, embraced the film. It was the tenth highest grossing film of 1961 and was re-released into theaters several times before its was available to watch at home. After all is said and done, it stands as one of the most successful animated films in history.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 10: 101 Dalmatians: The cool thing about watching these in chronological order is watching the progression of the animation. The style is so different from Sleeping Beauty. It's the first modern feeling Disney film. I enjoyed this much more than I remember enjoying it as a kid. Fantastic, non-traditional artwork. Great characters and story. A fascinating departure.
February 6, 2010 at 3:20pm ·

The Art:

Hi there, dreamy Roger.
9/10. I have already brought up how the use of Xerox technology affects the look of this film and it is a factor that is hard to overstate. Instead of inkers coming in and tracing the original artwork, giving it a smooth and polished look in the process, the cleaned up original artwork is what you saw onscreen. This was wonderful for the animators, who saw their creations appearing with one less middleman to be filtered through. The result is a startlingly different look in the animation. There is a sketchy, imperfect quality to the lines where you can see flashes of stray pencil marks left untouched. And where better to employ this than in a film populated with thousands of black and white spots that probably would have been too time-consuming to do otherwise. We have clearly ventured outside of the fairy tale land of clean, detailed elegance and entered a gritty city where specificity and impressionism clash in fascinating ways.

The backgrounds are especially fascinating for me. They are impressively composed with lots of telling details laid over blocks of color that do not always stay within the lines. It is especially lovely in shots of the interior of Roger and Anita's flat (when it is dark, the coloring shifts solely to shades of grey) and of the rows of buildings. They have a fine art quality that makes them look like they could fit nicely in a gallery. The use of color to telegraph emotion which first came to prominence in the Mary Blair era, leaves its mark here as well. Note the shot of the dogs crossing the river, where the scene is washed in shadows with red puncturing the horizon and the all-red backgrounds when the pups are about the be attacked.

Disney can still work a gorgeous landscape, huh?
This works in tandem with the stunning effects animation (smoke, storms, water, stars and snow) and landscapes (the city with its flashing neon, the country during the twilight bark) to give us shots like London shrouded in fog (less detailed than we're used to, which adds to the mystery). We also have the technological advancements in the animation of the cars, which involved filming three dimensional car models in black and white and adding color to the cels, giving them a fascinatingly realistic look. Other beautiful elements include the stained glass at the wedding and the gorgeous final shot of the city windows lighting up. All of these elements come together to give us a film that does't look like any feature we've seen before. The art in this film is refreshing, modern, pitch-perfect and eye-poppingly brilliant. The films that follow fail to employ this style of animation as artfully and organically and it will be quite a while before Disney animators are able to establish a new, powerful visual identity or gain a significant new piece technology in computer animation. 

The Story:

For Tom, who loves Cake Wrecks- How not to
do a 101 Dalmatians cake...

9/10. Starting with the incredible opening sequence, we know that this is going to be a story unlike any we've seen in a Disney animated feature. A new-fangled visual style and saucy underscore, timed to the animation, playfully incorporates the credits, slyly winking at the fact that we're watching a film. When we see the score credit, dalmatian spots become musical notes, etc. (It's probably my favorite opening sequence in all of the Disney animated features.) This brings us to the first modern, urban story told in animation by the studio. It's divided into two halves- a comedy of manners at first, morphing smoothly into a tense adventure story as the puppies are rescued. The major storyman on the project was the great Bill Peet, who had worked on many of the Disney greats.

Along the way we get robust moments of humor (Pongo drunk with joy at the puppies' birth), sadness (Pongo and Perdita under the stove), anticipation / release (the expectant fathers and their subsequent happy dance), and joy (the dogs' return home). The movie never sags and manages to make all of its beats flow together seamlessly. I have not read the book that the film is based on, but its author, Dodie Smith, was even known to have said that she felt like the Disney artists improved on her story. If that isn't high praise, then nothing is. The spark, the emotion and the charm that defines the best of the animated classics is abundant here.

...and how to do a 101 Dalmatians cake!
I love the familial feeling that binds the film together. Pongo, Perdita, Roger and Anita blend their family and welcome the new additions. When the little ones are taken away they stop at nothing to bring them home. They protect each other. They keep the home fires burning. It's a lovely statement about the strength of the bonds of both the families that we choose and that we are born into. That extends into the animal community, where other dogs, along with cats, geese, horses and cows create a chain of aid for the escaping pups. The film is showing the importance of being surrounded by a group of peers that is willing and eager to help when the mess hits the fan, in this case to send a message in barking morse code though the outcome may look bleak. It's a subtle and lovely lesson to be taken away from a stylish comedic adventure story that doesn't slow down long enough to bother with sounding preachy.

The Characters:

They're gonna have a lot of soot to clean up.
9/10. In the same way that Lady and the Tramp is built around a pair of dogs at the center of the story, 101 Dalmatians features two canines as leads. The major difference here is that they made the effort to keep the humans in the story as dimensional as their companions are. Pongo refers to Roger as his pet, and there is a wonderful sequence showing owners and their suspiciously similar-looking owners. (The moment when Cruella gets pen ink splotches on Roger makes it plainly obvious how much he resembles Pongo.) The central quartet is comprised of two couples that genuinely love each other. Roger and Anita are lighthearted and sweet while Pongo and Perdita are loving and protective parents. Their relationships feel lived-in and real. They are all gorgeously designed, fabulously animated and wonderfully voiced. It takes real artistry to capture such fully realized moments as Anita's half-sit in shock when she hears the number of puppies who have returned and her rise back up to avoid squashing one of them, the anger turned to laughter when she and Roger tumble into the lake, or the moments of tenderness between Pongo, Perdita and the pups.

Sweetie, you may need to see an optometrist.
This brings us to the other central character to the plot, and that's the villain Cruella De Vil. She was deliciously created by Marc Davis, who, as an Imagineer would contribute significantly to The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Country Bear Jamboree. Cruella was his feature animation swan song and, whew, did he go out with a big, fantastic bang! From her first appearance in silhouette, she is one of the most formidable villains of all time, with her black and white fright wig hair, bony and exaggerated form and face (Those cheekbones! Ouch! You could slice someone open with them!), the singular harshness and angularity of her design, her evil laugh, and dramatic demeanor. Emotions are perpetually turned up to eleven for her. When she's angry she seethes and when she's satisfied she's creepily blissful. I love telling moments like when she pushes Roger's pipe to the side so that she can get in his face, looks in the broken windows like she's hungrily hunting for her prey, and gets crazy, swirling red eyes as she tail-ends a truck that is harboring her victims. She may be larger than life, but she is very human in her cruelty. She is awful in a completely real way with no sorcery or witchcraft involved. It's the same mean-spirited spite that can be found next door in any city, any day. And that is probably the scariest thing about her.

Nanny's so cute!!!
The supporting cast of characters are all great as well. I'm especially partial to the lovably sweet Nanny, who is feisty when fighting off the intruders ("You got cloth ears?!?!") and is palpably devastated when she finds the puppies gone. Cruella's henchmen, with their oversized hands and noses, are blundering but intimidating and seem fully capable of violence. The animals participating in the twilight bark all make an impact with minimal screen time. (The goose who wags her tail feathers like an excited dog and holds up her friends ear so he can hear is my favorite.) And, last but not least, the puppies are adorable. They wisely use children to voice them to great effect and give us a central group to focus on, ably differentiating the perpetually hungry one, the rambunctious one, the curious one, etc. It is impossible not to fall in love with them, which is essential for a story that hinges on whether you are engaged with them enough to care about whether they are rescued. By the time one of them says that his "toes are froze" in a snowstorm, you are so smitten that you have to stop yourself from trying to reach into the screen and give him a hug to warm his bones.

The Music:

The amazeballs opening credits.
8/10. Examining the music in Disney films over the course of our DATE Nights, one of the things that has really stood out for me is the impressive scores from the Disney animated classics. One of the truly brilliant Disney composers is George Bruns and he has done some truly fantastic work here miles away from his work adapting Sleeping Beauty from Tchaikovsky. The sound is a bridge between the the classic original Disney film scores, perfected in Lady and the Tramp, and the distinctive sixties Disney sound that you would soon hear all over the music for the 64-65 New York World's Fair. It is a completely new sound appropriate for a modern day urban tale, mixing pop and jazz idioms into an emotionally resonant film score that fully supports the story being told.

Think of the opening credits, where the music that you hear signals that this will be unlike any other Disney animated film. Or the sweet music that peeks it head out from under the steady tic-toc of the clock and uneasy sound of thunder at the same time little Lucky emerges alive from the cloth in Roger's hands. The music in contrast to the preceding lack thereof mirrors our relief and joy in this sweet, sad moment when a puppy is almost lost.

The songs, by Mel Leven, who would later go on to adapt Babes in Toyland for Disney (meaning we have him to thank for that awesome, multi-colored Annette Funicello walking on her hands number!), are few, but fantastic. His great contribution to the Disney (if not American) songbook is "Cruella De Vil". It's a fantastic way to get us to gird our loins for the character to come, and she does't disappoint. It also tells us a lot about Roger and his fun relationship with Anita. The song is playful and catchy enough to be played on the radio, as it later is in the story. The other songs in the movie ("Kanine Krunchies" and "Dalmatian Plantatian") are brief little larks, but effective for what they are.

It's interesting to me that a movie about a songwriter has so few songs. (Apparently Leven planned for there to be more, but they didn't make their way into the finished project.) But even beyond the score playing a major role in shaping the narrative, they use the idea of music to tell the story. Watching it this last time I noticed that Roger insists to Anita at the beginning of the film as he writes "Cruella De Vil" that the music comes first and then the words, but in the end when he writes "Dalmatian Plantation", it's the lyrics that precede the melody. It's a way for Roger to signal to us, in his own vernacular as a tunesmith, that their world has changed. It's details like this, combining music and character to relay information without exposition, that show storytellers at their most creative.

The Gay Scale:

What could be gayer than a Disney
themed Barbie doll? Nada.
8/10. Most of this high score can be attributed to three words: Cruella De Vil. If you want to talk about over-the-top camp in Disney films, the conversation would start with her by necessity. She is completely larger than life and the fact that she is a materialistic diva to boot makes her gay catnip (queernip?). From her initial appearance in a huge fur coat, three times the size of her slim frame, to her wild gesticulations and whisky and nicotine (from pink cigarettes!) branded voice, to the sight of her in her over designed bedroom, wild-eyed in curlers, Cruella is for all intents and purposes a drag character. She belongs in the same league as other self-important, glamorous, steamrolling, destructive dames like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Her presence in this movie coupled with the fact that I have a humongous crush on Roger, who I think is a total dish, gives the movie a very high gay quotient.

The Bottom Line:

Bold, fresh styling. Wowza.
9/10. This movie is wonderful from start to finish. It is bracingly fresh, uniquely gorgeous to look at, with great characters, a rock solid story, a knockout score and a smattering of fun songs, one of which has become a standard. It is squarely unlike any other animated film Disney has done. The artists took what could have been a major setback (financial cuts) and found a way to flourish within their new boundaries. The problem will arise that not every story is suited to the look that was given to 101 Dalmatians. Could you imagine a Fantasia that looks like The Three Caballeros or an Alice in Wonderland that looks like Dumbo? They began to use the Xerox process, and the visuals that come with it, without really looking at whether the choice would support the story. I am not precious about animated style, but I am insistent that the style be carefully chosen because it is what the story, the characters and the world of the piece call for.

In a way, Walt got it right. The Xerox process did weaken the artistic boldness of the animated film for a spell. But here, in 101 Dalmatians, it is a technique that illuminates the story. That is where he got it wrong. Just as Sleeping Beauty was a bold artistic shift from Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians broke the mold of how an animated feature is supposed to look. We can't fault the movie that techniques pilfered from it for other movies would be far less successful there. This movie truly does get better for me every time I see it and it gets everything pretty spectacularly right. After having scant recollection of watching it as a child (probably because there were no pretty, pretty princesses), I am really floored by it as an adult. This easily ranks among the best of the best in the canon.

The Miscellanea:

The inevitable straight-to-video sequel, 101 Dalmatians 2: Patch's London Adventure, was released in 2003. It has something to do with rambunctious Patch wanting to be on TV like his hero, a dog named Thunderbolt. (Weird parallels to the 2008 Disney animated film Bolt much?) Cruella comes back with gay sidekick in tow and Jodi Benson (Ariel) voices Anita. It all seems a bit convoluted from plot summaries I've seen. I do find it telling that it has taken an original story whose main plot hinges on the power of community to vanquish a foe to a story about wanting to be someone special who stands out in a crowd. I think that says anything about the differences in values we taught our kids in the sixties versus what we teach them now. The importance of community over individuality as opposed to the exact opposite. Interesting.

I still have yet to see the 101 Dalmations live action adaptation. This trailer doesn't make a case to me that it needs to exist. What is there to improve on? Glenn Close seems to be having a blast and all, but, in the end, what is the point really? Just watch the original.

And here we have a questionable live action sequel to a unnecessary live action adaptation of an animated masterpiece. If the first seemed pointless, then 102 Dalmatians seems not only pointless, but also redundant and a bit lazy. Really? She reforms? But not actually? And she has some kind of gay sidekick? Now maybe my opinion on these films will change when I see them, which I'm sure I will one day, but they have a real uphill battle to fight if they want to win my good graces. (Do I sound like an old curmud...hey! Kid! Get off of my lawn! Sorry...curmudgeon yet?)

There is an amazing album called Disney Bossa Nova. If it is not in your hot little hands as we speak, get thee to an online retailer of your choosing (it's out of print) and for heaven's sake buy it! The entire album is brilliantly produced and wonderfully arranged. I promise you will love it. Last week I brought you a bossa nova "Once Upon a Dream", but this week is the reigning champ of bossa nova Disney covers- Marcos Valle singing "Cruela Cruel". Chances are if Tom and I are singing this particular tune, we are singing Marcos' version and gently swinging our hips.

I will admit that I came around to appreciating Dr. John rather late. It was around the same time that I started gaining an appreciation for country music and my Southern roots. Of course, the deal was sealed a few years later when he was involved in The Princess and the Frog, which is steeped in the flavor of his native New Orleans. He did a funky lil' cover of "Cruella De Vil" for the soundtrack to the live action remake and I kind of heart it.

I've also come clean to you guys about my burgeoning affection for some of the Disney Channel tween stars. My two favorites are easily Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. They have actually come out with some really great pop tunes. This is Selena Gomez's cover of "Cruella De Vil". She adds some "hard-edged" guitar sounds to tough it up, but it's pure bubble gum. I find it to be rather catchy and a good time. Tom finds it chasing him through his nightmares, poor thing.

This young man's name is Jonny May and he tickles the ivories at Disneyland. There are tons of great videos of his stylings, but this one is particularly delicious. I love that he really brings out the sexiness in "Cruella De Vil".

Just cuz they're always pretty much awesome, here are the Dapper Dans, Disneyland's barbershop quartet,  with their own rendition of 101 Dalmatians' signature song.

It seems that 101 Dalmatians also spawned a TV series in the late nineties set on the dalmatian plantation. I have no recollection of this show at all and it seems to have come and gone after two seasons without making too much of an impact. I can't say that this opening theme song sequence makes me feel too optimistic about its quality. It seems stylized in a Kim Possible kind of manner and full of hijinks, but there does seem to be a bit of imagination there. Then again, I did just take a look at the beginning of the first episode and when the first line belonged to a Jamaican rasta man, I stopped watching.

I will go on record as saying I wish there were more character encounters at Disney Parks. Not character greetings where you stand in line for an hour and a half to walk into a fancy room with vague theming and spend a few minutes with a princess, but random, magical character encounters when you aren't even seeking them out. Part of what is so wonderful about the experience of being in a Disney park is that you are somehow in a world where Peter Pan searches for treasure, Mary Poppins is making her way somewhere terribly important (if her impeccable posture is any indication), and Cruella De Vil could be around the next corner waiting to pop out at you. This is a world where characters from the entire Disney canon go about their business and make you a part of the magic while doing so. I direct you to the spieling Peter Pan in the Miscellanea from my DATE Night a few weeks back for further evidence. That's how you serve face character realness, ladies and gentleman.

That being said, this Cruella may not have the voice or look down perfectly, but the spirit is dead-on. And that's more than good enough for me- it's the most important factor. If you get the spirit of the character right, you are good to go as far as I'm concerned. Watching her as she poses for paparazzi that isn't really there, spooks people as they emerge from attractions, and barks orders at an adorable nugget behind the wheel of the stationary car outside Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is pure joy tinged with a healthy dose of schadenfreude. It's super rad.

Just when you thought it wasn't possible for Cruella De Vil to get campier, you see this video of her show in Disneyland Paris. All you had to do was flank her with two super gay backup dances and drop her into a French theme park show, et voila! Plus de camp! This show actually looks pretty cute and it's very interesting to see how they handle the language issue, speaking both in French and English. As a monolingual rube who wants nothing more than to visit the Disney parks in other countries, it helps me feel like I won't be completely lost at (Tokyo Disney)sea.

And now we come to a non-Disney duo of clips. First, we have a clip about a 101 Dalmatians musical that was completely unrelated to the Disney version. It toured the country a few years back and I actually caught it during its stint at Madison Square Garden. It was not good. There were real dogs. Plus there were actors playing dogs in dog costumes. Kids played the puppies. And people on stilts played the humans. The music was not memorable or appropriate to the story in the least and was written by a guy from the rock group Styx. Natch. The performances were ok, with Rachel York doing her darndest to make something major out of her turn as Cruella. She was quite fine, but I was constantly terrified she would topple over. Most of all I missed the Disney storytelling, amazing music and lack of treacle.

This is a clip of a band named Cruella DeVille of a song called "Two Dreadful Children". It sounds like like what would happen if Rocky Horror and Dresden Dolls had a baby in a production of Shockheaded Peter directed by Brecht. It's completely twisted, weird and awesome. The band wasn't prolific, were together for two years and were from Northern Ireland. Someone also put together a website gathering as much information as they could about the band, but apparently there isn't all that much. Suffice it to say that this song alone is enough to endear them to me and guarantee them a place on my Halloween playlists in perpetuity.

So there we have it! As we've entered the sixties things are changing and changing fast. Next week for our DATE Night we will be traveling back to the era of wizards and royalty with The Sword and the Stone. Full disclosure, y'all. Things start to get a little janky now. 101 Dalmatians marks the end of Disney animation's second golden age and from here on things get a little spotty. Some of the films over the next fifteen years will be out and out gems, some will be disappointments and some will rest in between the two, but I can guarantee you two things. 1) They will all be fascinating and b) there is a small lady with a fishtail (not to mention the third golden age) on the other side. Stick with me, kids!

What did y'all folks think? Are you as impressed with the film's more contemporary feel or do you miss the storybook world of many of Disney's past masterpieces? Did you prefer the hand inked and painted look of the older films or the new look that 101 Dalmatians ushers in? Do you feel like this film is the end of a golden age? Some would argue Sleeping Beauty and some The Jungle Book. What's your take? Have you ever sung "Cruella De Vil" under your breath to an insufferably awful boss? Maybe that last one is just me...

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I love your blog and Im happy you're back. You are a very talented writer.
    I think you should give the live action version a chance. Glenn Close is over the top as she should be and the story has been altered so not a direct copy of the original, so it isn't as bad as what you may think. Cartoon puppies are loveable but nothing compared to seeing the real thing.
    The money grabbing sequel can be forgotten about.
    And you didn't mention the 101 Dalmations musical?!