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.
Near the end of the film is a wonderful sequence where the puppies eagerly obey the command of their parents to get dirty by rolling in soot in order to disguise themselves as Labradors. As the puppies march in line in front of an increasingly suspicious Cruella, wet snow falls from the roof to expose their Dalmatian spots and set off the final chase scene. The film has more mystery and suspense than most classic Disney films, but it ends happily, with the bad guys defeating themselves.
As mentioned above, the films are light on bonus tracks. The extras in the Aristocats DVD — just a single DVD — offer little in the way of information or entertainment. In addition to the obligatory and simplistic games (given our sophisticated gamer culture, one wonders whether kids even play these games), there are musical tracks, the most notable of which is a deleted song, “She Never Felt Alone,” about Madame Bonfamille’s affection for her cats. Leaving that song out was a judicious decision; and we can be grateful the filmmakers had enough respect for the original not to dub in an execrable contemporary pop version of the Cruella theme song performed by Selena Gomez — another bonus track worth skipping.
The bonus tracks on Dalmatians are somewhat more satisfying. “Cruella DeVil: Drawn to be Bad” features interviews of those involved in the development and design of her character and look, including observations on her “cadaverous face,” her physical dominance of scenes, and her strange mixture of sophistication and creepiness. The most meaty extra is a track entitled “Redefining the Line: The Making of 101 Dalmatians.” Dalmatians marked Disney’s shift away from the painstaking and costly process of drawing each image by hand, and used a relatively new technique that involved the photocopying of images. Although the new technology had been used in isolated scenes in previous Disney films — for example in the gorgeous but budget-busting Sleeping Beauty — its widespread use here signaled a trend that runs all the way up to the advanced computer-generated imagery of today’s animated features.
“Excellent villain, mate.” That’s the astute judgment of a child video-game expert in the mediocre live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close, who embraced the part with histrionic glee. “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will” is a line from the title song in the original film. With her cackling laughter, her sharply contrasting color schemes of red, yellow, black, and white, she dominates every scene in which she appears. Best of all are the huge wafts of yellowish-green smoke emanating from her cigarettes like poison gas. It is a joy to have the original Cruella, the most entertaining of the all the Disney villains, back in all her grandiose malevolence.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.