Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Year: 1961

Source materials : The Hundred and One Dalmatians, or the Great Dog Robbery, a 1956 children’s novel by Dodie Smith


Budget: $3.6 million

Box office: $6.2 milion in its initial release. Total domestic lifetime gross is $145 million, and its total worldwide gross is $215 million.

Plot: Songwriter Roger Radcliffe lives in a bachelor flat in London, along with his dalmatian, Pongo. Bored with bachelor life, Pongo decides to find a wife for Roger and a mate for himself.


While watching various female dog-human pairs out the window, he spots the perfect one, a woman named Anita and her female dalmatian, Perdita. He quickly gets Roger out of the house and drags him through the park to arrange a meeting. Roger and Anita fall in love and get married.


Later, Perdita gives birth to a litter of fifteen puppies. That same night, they are visited by Cruella De Vil, a wealthy former schoolmate of Anita’s. She offers to buy the entire litter, but Roger says they are not for sale. Roger writes a song mocking Cruella.

A few weeks later, she hires her henchmen, Jasper and Horace, to steal them. When Scotland Yard is unable to find them, Pongo and Perdita use the “Twilight bark”, a canine gossip line, to ask for help from the other dogs in London. Colonel, an old sheepdog, along with his compatriots Captain, a gray horse, and Sergeant Tibbs, a tabby cat, find the puppies in a place called Hell Hall , along with many other dalmatian puppies that she had bought from various dog stores.


When Tibbs learns they are going to be made into dog-skin fur coats, Colonel quickly sends word back to London. Upon receiving the message, Pongo and Perdita leave town to retrieve their puppies. Winter has come, and they have to cross the Stour River which is running fast and laden with slabs of broken ice.

Meanwhile, Tibbs overhears Cruella ordering Jasper and Horace to kill the puppies that night out of fear the police will soon find them. Tibbs attempts to rescue them while Jasper and Horace are preoccupied watching television, but they finish their show and come for them before he can get them out of the house. Pongo and Perdita break in and confront Jasper and Horace just as they are about to kill the puppies. While the adult dogs attack them, Colonel and Tibbs guide the puppies from the house.

After a happy reunion with their own puppies, Pongo and Perdita realize there are dozens of others with them, 99 altogether including their own. Shocked at Cruella’s plans, they decide to adopt all of them, certain that Roger and Anita would never reject them. They begin making their way back to London through deep snow; all open water is frozen solid. Other animals help them along the way. Cruella, Jasper, and Horace chase them.


In one town, they cover themselves with soot so they appear to be labrador retrievers, then pile inside a moving van bound for London. As it is leaving, melting snow clears off the soot and Cruella sees them. In a rage, she follows the van in her car and rams it, but Jasper and Horace, who try to cut it off from above, end up crashing into her. Both vehicles are smashed to smithereens and fall into a deep ravine; and battered, bruised and stranded, Cruella and her henchmen are defeated at last.

Back in London, Roger and Anita are attempting to celebrate Christmas and his first big hit, a song about Cruella, but they miss their canine friends. Suddenly, barking is heard outside and, after their nanny opens the door, the house is filled with dogs. After wiping away the rest of the soot, they are delighted to realize their companions have returned home. After counting 84 extra puppies, they decide to use the money from the song to buy a large house in the country so they can keep all 101 dalmatians.

Changes from the novel: The biggest change is the name of the adult dogs. In the novel the main characters are called Pongo and Missis. After Missis gives birth, the Dearly’s find an abandoned Dalmatian named Perdita (which means “lost”). Perdita’s own puppies are also missing, which led her to run away, and her mate was named Prince. In the novel, there are 97 puppies, bringing the number to 101. The film simplifies things. The characters of Perdita and Prince are cut, Missis is renamed Perdita, and there are 99 puppies. In the novel Mr. Dearly is a financial wizard, helping the government out of a financial taxation problem. In the film, he is a song writer and his name is changed to Radcliffe.

Background: Walt Disney read the novel soon after it was published and acquired the rights. Dodie Smith had always secretly hoped that Disney would make it into a film. When writer Bill Peet sent Smith some drawings of the characters, she wrote back saying that he had actually improved her story. Walt assigned Peet to write the story, marking the first time that the story for a Disney animated film was written by a single person.

Animation: After Sleeping Beauty disappointed at the box-office, there was some talk of closing down the animation department at the Disney studio. The animation process had grown expensive. Long-time Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks, was in charge of special processes at the studio, and had been experimenting with Xerox photography. He had modified a Xerox camera to transfer drawings by animators directly to animation cels, eliminating the inking process. It saved time and money, but lacked the fine lavish quality of hand inking. However, if the animators had to animate and ink ninety-nine puppies by hand, it would have doubled the cost if the film, according to Chuck Jones. Although Walt approved the Xerox process, he disliked the artistic look of the film.

Once again, a live-action reference film was shot. Helene Stanley returned to perform the character of Anita. Mary Wickes provided the live-action reference for Cruella. The animators built a live-action model of Cruella’s car, and filmed it, transferring the image directly to the cells.

Marc Davis was the sole animator on Cruella De Vil. He claimed her character was partly inspired by Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Tallulah Bankhead. Davis found her disheveled hair style by looking “through old magazines for hairdos from 1940 till now.” Her coat was exaggerated to match her over-sized personality, and the lining was red because “there’s a devil image involved.”

Voice Cast: Australian actor Rod Taylor voiced Pongo. The year before he starred in The Time Machine and would later appear in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Before he passed away in 2009, he made a cameo appearance as Winston Churchill in Quintin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Betty Lou Gerson, as Cruella,was previously the narrator for Cinderella. Later, she appeared in The Fly, The Miracle on the Hills, and a small role in Mary Poppins. J. Pat O’Malley, Thurl Ravenscroft, Barbara Luddy, and Paul Frees provide additional voices.

Critical Reception: Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, “While the story moves steadily toward a stark, melodramatic “chase” climax, it remains enclosed in a typical Disney frame of warm family love, human and canine.”

Legacy: 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure , the official sequel to the original animated film, was released direct-to-video in 2003. They released a live-action remake, 101 Dalmatians, starring Glenn Close as Cruella, as well as a sequel 102 Dalmatians. Disney has announced that another live-action film is in development. Emma Stone is set to play Cruella.


Cruella routinely appears in parades and stage shows at the parks. A figure of a puppy watching television is displayed at the All-Star Movies resort at Walt Disney World, as well as large statues of Pongo and Perdita.

My take:  The look of the film is different than what we have seen before, rather than the lucisous look of Sleeping Beauty, the lines are sharper and more angular. The Xerox method is clear every time you see the pack of puppies running across the screen.

I love the whole idea of an animal world existing side by side with the human world, and we’ll see this with Aristocats, The Rescuers, and The Great Mouse Detective.

Belle put it best: Cruella is pure camp. The plot itself is a straightforward action story, a rescue if you will.

Next Week: Disney takes on the Arthurian Legend with The Sword in the Stone