Ode to Cruella
Dogs and cats, living together.


Thomas S. Hibbs

Disney is at it again. After many years, it is finally bringing out of its famous vault new DVD releases of two of its animated classics: 101 Dalmatians and Aristocats, whose original releases, in 1961 and 1970, respectively, bookend the decade of the 1960s for Disney.

As with the commercially successful release of the recent Hannah Montana concert film, here, too, Disney warns fans that the films will be available only for a limited time. With all the hype, one might expect these films to be loaded with interesting bonus tracks. However, with the exception of a couple of informative extras included in the Dalmatians two-disc Platinum edition, there is not much new here. Still, the result of the remastering of sound and image for the DVD format is worth the cost of ownership, as both films have a crisp and mesmerizing look, and rich, captivating sound.

Neither of these films has ever entered into the psyche of American culture in the way that Cinderella and Snow White have, but I have always found them more entertaining and more exuberant. Particularly welcome is the reappearance of Cruella De Vil, the most outlandish of Disney villains, in all her Technicolor glory.

Part of what is so wonderful about 101 Dalmatians and Aristocats is the romantic look they provide of London and Paris. Dalmatians gives us sedate London, with its well-trimmed yards, parks, and fog settling upon the city in the evening; it also provides shots of the city, aglow in flashing neon signs late at night. Aristocats depicts the boulevards of Paris in all their languorous glory, and the Eiffel Tower– seen from moonlit rooftops under a dark blue sky — provides a perfect setting for the blossoming romance between cats from opposite sides of Paris.

The films are a feast for the ears. The music is splendid — from the Aristocats’ theme, sung by Maurice Chevalier, to “Dalmatian Plantation.” Music plays an important role in defining the characters in Disney’s films. The lead male in Dalmatians is a struggling songwriter. The young felines in Aristocats, meanwhile, are learning piano — and the alley cat whom they befriend, Thomas O’Malley, has a best friend named Scat Cat who leads a gang of jazz musicians. Then there are the voices: Cruella De Vil’s, which alternates between arch sophistication and a demonic cackle, is supplied by Betty Lou Gerson, who — viewers may be surprised to learn — also supplied the narration for Cinderella. Then there are the distinctly feminine voices of Aristocats, Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her daughter Marie — who responds to her brother’s accusation that she started a fight by saying, “Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them.”

The films have strikingly similar plots, with dogs or cats being stolen to serve the aims of evil humans — and then being saved by the goodwill and clever strategies of their fellow animals. In Aristocats, Edgar the butler overhears his wealthy and childless Madame Bonfamille’s plan to leave her fortune to him — on the condition that he use the money to care for her beloved cats. Plotting to eliminate the pets, he dumps them in the country and returns to Paris. As they try to figure out where they are and how to get home, the cats are fortunate to chance upon the worldly, contented bachelor cat, Thomas O’Malley. After a long journey that takes them through the rough parts of Paris — never before witnessed by the refined feline aristocrats — they make their return. The story tracks the maturation of kittens Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz — but finally, it is a love story between their pampered mother Duchess, who learns to appreciate the fun-loving life on the streets, and Thomas O’Malley, the feral smarty cat who comes to sacrifice his carefree ways for responsible fatherhood.

The desire for family life shapes the opening sequence in 101 Dalmatians, as well. (While the film’s opening credits, written on Dalmatian spots dancing across the screen, serves as an overture for the film’s consistent strength in combining music and well-crafted images.) The subdued Dalmatian narrator, Pongo, observes that Roger, his human companion — whom Pongo calls his pet — needs a mate. Spying an appropriate pair of females, one human (Anita) and the other Dalmatian (Perdita), Pongo drags Roger to the park and thus is a dual romance born. When Perdita becomes pregnant and is about to give birth, the males wait anxiously in an adjacent room.

Joy at 15 puppies soon turns to sorrow, as one tiny still-born puppy is carried out to Pongo, whose ears droop and eyes become downcast. However, Roger’s gentle massaging provokes the breathing of the puppy (appropriately dubbed “Lucky”). General rejoicing ensues.

The centerpiece of the film is, of course, Cruella De Vil — Anita’s boss, whose inordinate interest in the Dalmatian pups is motivated by desires even darker than her creepy exterior would indicate. After Cruella’s underlings steal the puppies and haul them to the abandoned De Vil family country estate, a chain of dog communications sends warnings to the country all the way from London. Cruella’s lackeys, Horace and Jaspers — the paradigms for the bungling burglars in Home Alone — are good for a number of slapstick laughs. Their incompetence helps save the puppies from becoming the newest addition to Cruella’s wardrobe.