Wednesday, March 26, 2008

101 Dalmatians: An Introduction

As I did with Pinocchio, I'm going to do a mosaic for the film One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Before starting, I have to thank Hans Perk, who has generously provided the studio documentation for this and many other Disney films on his website. The mosaic to come would not be possible without Hans' collection.

I also want to talk a bit about the film before getting into the details of each shot. My own career and interests are focused on direction, story and animation, so those are the things that I'll be concentrating on. I know that Dalmatians was a major design change for Disney features in terms of art direction, colour styling and the use of Xerox to transfer the animators' drawings to cels. However, there are people who are far more qualified than I to talk about those aspects of the film and I can only hope that somebody else will write on those subjects.

Dalmatians is popular with audiences and well thought of by critics. It has comedy, suspense, and excitement and it moves at a very brisk pace. In addition, the personalities in the film are memorable; each of them is specific, consistent and compelling. The film is lighthearted entertainment that succeeds on many levels.

Two levels where the film does fall short are character and theme. Character, as opposed to personality, has to do with depth and change. The personalities of Dalmatians are all on the surface. There are no hidden qualities that are revealed as a result of the events of the film. The personalities end the film identical to how they started it. Unlike many other Disney films, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi, the characters do not grow; they do not see the world differently as a result of what they've experienced.

Part of this has to do with the nature of kidnapping stories. Dalmatians was the first use of this idea as the basis of an entire animated Disney feature, but it was not the last time that Disney used it. The Aristocats and The Rescuers are also built around this motif. Other studios have also used it: Dick Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy as well as Pixar's Toy Story films and Finding Nemo.

One aspect to these stories is that there's a perfect world that is disrupted by the kidnapping. The victims are rescued and they, as well as additional characters, are returned to the perfect world. It can be a very conservative form because, in some ways, it's a return to the womb. That's almost explicit in Raggedy Ann and Andy, but it's also the case in Dalmatians. Because the world is perfect to start with and perfection is regained, there can't be any growth and it's hard for the story to add up to a theme.

Pixar's handling of this is more sophisticated than Disney's. Finding Nemo starts and ends in the world of the reef, but both Marlin and Nemo change over the course of the film and their relationship changes as well. Nemo is forced to be more self-reliant and Marlin realizes that risk is unavoidable and that parents must leave emotional room for their children to grow away from them. There is nothing like this in the parent-child relationships in Dalmatians.

Dalmatians completes a transition from focusing on children in a hostile world in the earliest Disney features and children as members of a bored middle class in the films of the '50s. In the '60's films, the characters with the most potential for growth -- the children -- are ignored in favor of the adults who supervise them. I've written that it's probably a result of the artists getting older and getting farther away from a child's viewpoint, but all the children of the animated Disney 60's films (the puppies, Wart, Mowgli, the kittens) are the focus of adult agendas rather than growing to create agendas of their own, as do Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians has just been re-released on DVD, so this seems like a good time to examine the film more closely. Let the mosaics begin.


Oswald Iten said...

I'm really looking forward to your analysis of Dalmatians.
As I am considering starting an animation blog of my own, I wonder if you have any advice concerning the use of copyrighted pictures. How can I use screenshots of DVDs etc without provoking any legal problems?

Mark Mayerson said...

Perhaps I've been living dangerously, but I haven't asked for permission to run any of the images that appear on this blog.

My belief, which is untested in court, is that what I'm doing qualifies as fair use. The images on this blog don't compete in any way with the actual films. The images are no substitute for the complete works. I'm using the images to comment on films the same way a critic would.

Best of luck with your own blog.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis of the story of 101 Dalmatians is really interesting. For me, I have just purely enjoyed the film and never thought that the story of Dalmatians had this deep a meaning.

rafianimates said...

I cannot wait for this analysis. Dalmations is one of my few faves, possibly my most favourite actually. I happened to have watched it last week after a long, long time, so the timing of this new series couldn't be better!

Floyd Norman said...

This film was like a breath of fresh air after slogging through several years of "Sleeping Beauty.' Though the story was somewhat simplistic, we still enjoyed our task, and the movie seemed to zip through production.

"Toy Story2" was a film with more depth and range. I dare say it was probably the most sophisticated animated film I've ever worked on. Though the story appears obvious now - - getting there involved a lot of long nights and a lot of pain. Of all my career story work, this is the film I point to with pride. Plus, we owe so much to our pal, Joe Ranft.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Nice analysis! I've always looked forward to your mosaics Mark & 'One Hundred & One Dalmatians' is one of my favorites, so this'll definitely be a worthy sight to see!

I posted about the film last week & I plan on continuing it next week focusing on the 'recycled animation' throughout the film with videos. It may seem a bit negative, especially for a film that's so hard to dislike, but it's just for the sake of letting it out there.

Once again, great pot & can't wait to see your mosaics!

Luke Farookhi said...

'One Hundred and One Dalmatians' is one of my all-time favorite animated films. Better, in my opinion, than any of the 50s Disney features. The design is what I like the most about it - and of course Marc Davis' animation of Cruella De Vil stands out as one of the highlights of anything ever done at the studio - but the writing is also among the best in all of the Disney films. I'm really looking forward to your analysis.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Oops! Sorry Mark, I meant to write "post" at the end of my comment! The 's' key always gets stuck. Once again, sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post!

Nancy said...

Dalmatians was and is a fine looking picture, but I always found it inferior in a story sense to LADY AND THE TRAMP, for the reasons you described. The titular character of LADY goes through a character arc, moving from sheltered pet dependent on humans to relying more on her own species. DALMATIANS is very slick, but it has the depth of a Saturday Morning special.
It's Cruella who holds the show together, and she's completely over the top--then again, maybe I wouldn't want to know too much about her motivations for a dog fur coat!

I do not agree that ageing artists would identify less with child characters. I think that the studio fell into cliched depictions of children "(I'm an Orphan! Feel Sorry for me!") to substitute for the horror in the early shorts (Mother will kill me, mother is dead, father will die)
Later films concentrate on more comic situations and villains.

NEMO is the strongest Pixar story precisely because it returns to the early Disney theme of 'separation from the parent' to drive the plot along. Even so, the focus is hardly on Nemo--he's not in the film much, it's all about the Dad.

Chuck said...

As a child I enjoyed this movie for the humor and suspense. It wasn't until later that I caught the sly digs at television and a then nascent "15 minutes of fame" society that figure in the plot. Though I agree that character development is somewhat lacking, the writers make up for it with the social commentary - not something often associated with Disney features during Walt's time.

Chuck Howell