There’s an old maxim that “less is more,” but sometimes, more actually is more. Five Dalmatians might have made a decent movie, twenty or so would have been interesting, but one hundred and one? Now that’s entertainment.
Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (simplified as 101 Dalmatians in later releases) took this exercise in excess to lofty heights with a simple but effective story, a new rough-hewn animation design, and one of the most memorable villains in cartoon history. The studio was rewarded with a spectacularly successful initial release and a franchise in the making.
Our canine hero and narrator is a spotted pooch named Pongo, who lives with his songwriting “pet” human, Roger Radcliff. The two men need love, and Pongo spots potential mates in the lovely Anita and the equally fetching Dalmatian Perdita. Pongo forces a rendezvous in the park that culminates with a spill into a nearby brook, and soon the two couples are wed.
Married life brings happiness for Roger and Anita and a litter of fifteen puppies for Pongo and Perdita. The Dalmatianlings are an adorable lot, but Roger’s meager earnings won’t support such a huge family.
Enter Cruella de Vil, a cigarette-smoking toothpick of a woman with a huge fur coat and a half-black/half-white coif. The sneering society gal offers to take the puppies off the Radcliffs' hands, but Roger smells a skunk-haired rat. Undeterred, Cruella sends henchmen Horace and Jasper to pilfer the pups while the adults (except the spirited but overpowered Nanny) are away.
When Pongo and Perdy discover their brood is missing, they send out a “Twilight Bark,” a relay system of woofs that reaches the ears of country canine The Colonel. Together with a horse called The Captain and a cat named Tibbs, The Colonel finds the pups, along with eighty-four other stolen Dalmatians, whose pelts the wicked Cruella is planning to sew into a fur coat. Dog, horse, cat and Dalmatian parents team up for a daring rescue, only to find themselves caught in a life-or-death chase with Cruella and her thugs.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians was a mammoth hit for Disney, finding eager new Dalmatian disciples with each re-release. The multiple pup effects were achieved by means of the new (at the time) technology of Xeroxography, which allowed animators to duplicate pups rather than hand draw the entire legion. Although the movie featured fewer songs than most Disney animated features, Roger’s improvised “Cruella de Vil” (actually written by Mel Leven) provided some musical oomph to the proceedings.
More importantly, the music wasn’t really necessary, as Ms. De Vil herself could carry the weight of the entire production on her own bony shoulders. The masterfully deranged aristocrat was an inspired invention, one that provided the model for countless villainesses that followed.
In 1996, Disney released a live action version of the film, with Glenn Close in the coveted role. The following year brought the debut of 101 Dalmatians: The Series, which took the Radcliffs and pups to the countryside for weekly comic adventures. The success of these offspring proved the staying power of the original, which after several re-releases has become the third-biggest animated moneymaker of all time.