The Persistence of Disney, Part 17: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

| February 19, 2017

The only way that I can really deal with One Hundred and One Dalmatians in terms of watching the Disney animated features in succession is to put Lady and the Tramp completely out of my mind.  That lovely film extolled a kind of watercolor intimacy of a dog’s experience.  One Hundred and One Dalmatians isn’t quite that subtle.  If Lady and the Tramp was the equivalent to a symphony for a peaceful Sunday afternoon, then Dalmatians plays more like an evening at a jazz club.

The jazzy and very current approach to the film was something of a desperation move.  With One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Walt Disney and his animators were moving into a new era, not out of artistic ingenuity but out of financial desperation.  In 1959, their previous animated feature Sleeping Beauty became yet another financial casualty due to the work and the cost involved.  In the years before computers, animation was a process that was not only time consuming it was expensive, and recouping the cost proved to be a gamble many were not willing to take.  Sleeping Beauty had been a huge expensive red-blooded epic that was the most beautiful thing he and his animators had produced with ink and pen since Fantasia in 1940.  But, as with his magnum symphony from a generation earlier, Sleeping Beauty was a financial casualty.  Despite being the second highest-grossing movie of the year (behind Ben-Hur) the movie cost $6,000,000 to make and raked in just over $5,000,000.  Something had to change.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  At the time there was even talk of scrapping the animated feature department and focusing on theme parks, television and live-action, and Walt found it hard to disagree, but he didn’t want to give up on an entity that had essentially built his company.  The thing that had to change was the animation.  Gone were the days of large-scale ambitious works of art, realistic characters and backgrounds fit for a museum wall.  Instead Walt and his animators employed a process first brought to him by Ub Iwerks, his Head of Special Processes, a new technique called Xerography.

After World War II, The Xerox Company and its new-fangled copier was suddenly becoming the best friend to the average office worker and, as it turned out, would become the best friend to Disney animators too.  The process allowed animators to copy the drawings directly onto the cell alleviating the pains-taking process of hand-drawing and inking each and every cell one by one.  That made for a faster process, but artistically, it also meant that the whole palette would have to change.  Since the Xerox machine could only copy lines in black that basically meant that it eliminated some of the nuances that were the cornerstones of the artistry in Pinocchio and Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty.  The result is a movie that employs a style that many animation buffs and film historians have debated about for more than half a century.  The broad outlines or “The Sketchy Style” would become the mainstay for Disney films for the next two decades.  Many saw it as a drawback in the artistry while others maintain that it simply takes the animation into a new era.  Personally, I’ve never liked Disney’s “Sketchy Style.”  It makes the features feel like they were made for television, or like some process in the animation was skipped over.  If you watch a film like Sleeping Beauty and then move into One Hundred and One Dalmatians, you can see the budgetary drawbacks.  Functionally, it is ideal.  Artistically, it feels like a step backwards.

And yet, I’d much rather have the drawbacks then no Disney at all.  Today, it is rather blasphemous to the American mind to consider the idea of the Walt Disney Studios reaching a state in which they are no longer able to produce animated features.  Our culture is so married to this studio’s confections that imagining the world without it is like imagining a world that never invented chocolate cake.  Where then is the food for the soul?

The appetite here is provided by a film that is probably the most relaxed animated feature that Walt produced in his lifetime.  After the thundering epic of Sleeping Beauty, here is a film of quiet passages, of simple observation.  It doesn’t have to thunder us will wall-to-wall music.  It’s a sweet film for those reasons.

The retooling in artistic process meant alleviating the process of making the characters realistic, a long-held tradition going all the way back to Snow White.  As a result, the characters are more stylized and much more consideration is given to shaping the human dimensions.  Literally, many of the characters have dog-like dimensions.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.