First Theatrical Release: January 25, 1961
First Home Viewing Release: April 10, 1992
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: The library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Anita, Perdita, Nanny, Penny (and presumably some other female pups?), and, of course, Cruella DeVil. Near the beginning of the movie, Cruella and Anita talk puppies.
101 Dalmatians never made it very far up my Disney esteem list, and I think a big part of that had to do with when it was released. I never saw it as a young child, as the VHS (my main exposure to Disney films produced before my lifetime) didn’t release until 1992, when I was already 11. I saw it for the first time during its 1991 theatrical re-release; Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid had recently been released, and it was hard for anything without substantial nostalgia points to hold a candle to them. So while I enjoyed the movie as I’ve enjoyed every Disney movie upon first viewing (except Fantasia), it didn’t make much of an impression on me. (I was enough of a Disney loyalist to attend the live action remake in 1996, but not enough to ever watch the sequel.)
Upon my adult rewatch, I wondered if I might have given it short shrift.
One of the things I love about 101 is that it’s the first Disney movie to be “contemporary” — it is a movie that takes place in the era in which it was created. (I watched a short special about it that said it was the first Disney movie where the characters drove cars, but that’s not true — that distinction goes to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad). This gives us a more clear-eyed window into the time in which it was created than do other Disney films, and it “dates” it in a way that is charming rather than obsolete.
This is also one of the few Disney films that features “regular folks” — Roger and Anita are lower middle-class newlyweds living in a drab, somewhat cluttered apartment. They are in love but they worry about money. Anita gets annoyed when Roger is rude about her classmate Cruella De Vil, but she still lets him dance her around the room. Because the wedding takes place at the beginning of the movie rather than the end, this is one of the few Disney movies to portray married/family life, and it places a positive spin on it without it ever becoming saccharine. There’s even a hint that Anita might also be a working woman — we see her bent over a coffee table doing paperwork right before Cruella’s entrance. Also, they have a housekeeper, which seems as if it would be both unnecessary and unaffordable if they weren’t both working.
This movie also feels a little bit like Lady & the Tramp in reverse — rather than the dogs’ lives revolving around the humans’ expectation of a baby, here the humans’ lives revolve around their dogs starting a family. Because the movie opens with Pongo and Perdita, it’s also one of the few Disney movies that shows family life from the parents’ rather than the kids’ perspective (i.e., The Lion King, Bambi). We even glimpse maternal ambivalence — a well-guarded secret in our modern society, but practically unspeakable in generations past — when Perdita admits that she wishes they weren’t having puppies at all after Cruella expresses her interest in them. After the puppies are born, Perdita is a good mother, but not a saint — there is a weariness in her voice that adds an edge of realism to her portrayal. And Pongo and Perdita admit to looking forward to putting the puppies to bed so they can go out for a “W-A-L-K.” They love their children, but they also want a break — probably the most realistic portrayal of parenting we’re likely to see in Disney, and as in Lady & the Tramp, this is an acceptable risk to take because the characters are dogs.
Finally, I found myself really loving the themes in this movie: the sense that when something evil happens, a community of strangers will rally to come to the rescue — from the “Twilight bark” (which we’ve ALL heard!) to the dairy barn where the puppies can get fed to the collie who brings Pongo and Perdita table scraps and the black Labrador who shepherds them to their getaway vehicle. Despite the fact that Cruella has set up a Dalmatian puppy death camp — a decidedly dark specter if you let yourself linger on it — the movie leaves you generally feeling that the world is a good place filled with helpful people — or animals.
And since Cruella has only been mentioned in passing, it’s worth noting that she, too, is one of the “goods” about this movie. Is there anyone who doesn’t love Cruella De Vil, with her mile-long cigarette holder and her wild two-tone hair? And I dare anyone to think about this movie without getting her theme song stuck in their head. I can’t do it.
Like all Disney movies appraised through adult eyes, 101 Dalmations is not devoid of those moments that make you go, Huh?
For example, we learn at the beginning that Cruella is an “old schoolmate” of Anita’s — so why does she look as if she is 20 years her senior? Either Anita was incredibly advanced, Cruella flunked 6th grade ten times, or there is something REALLY problematic in those cigarettes.
Also, Cruella only stole Pongo and Perdita’s puppies after she offered to pay “twice what they were worth.” She DID pay for the other 84 other puppies discovered at Hell Hall. Assuming England didn’t have many animal welfare laws on the books in 1961, Pongo and Perdita’s heist turns them into thieves (not to mention vigilantes) as well, and those puppies are stolen property. This would make for an interesting day in court: Radcliffe v. De Vil.
Finally, why is the church TOTALLY EMPTY when Anita and Roger marry? Were these guys disowned from their families? Is that why they are so devoted to their dogs? Is there a fanfic out there that explains why two people who seem perfectly nice don’t have any friends (except a lunatic who wants to skin puppies?)
There is very little to object to here aside from a fairly innocuous implication (too often true) that bachelors can’t keep their houses clean, or a comment about “crazy woman drivers” in reference to Cruella.
Probably the most irksome thing about the movie is the fact that of the six puppies from Pongo and Perdita’s litter that are named in the movie (Patch, Lucky, Pepper, Penny, Roly, and Freckles), only one of them is female, and only the boy puppies have speaking lines. This just adds to the idea that boys are somehow the “default gender,” or the sex that is more likely to have personality. In the words of disenfranchised girl puppies everywhere, Grrrrrrr.
For Further Reading