Watching my way through the Disney catalogue has really been a cool lesson in the studio’s history. It has also allowed me to really see where, for good or for ill, some of their big turning points are. Between Sleeping Beauty‘s box office failure and the soaring success of One Hundred and One Dalmatians – I am now at a point that sees Disney going down a nearly 30 year path of no fairy tales.
I think it’s hard to imagine just how big One Hundred and One Dalmatians actually was for the studio. Thanks to new Xerox technology nearly halving the animation budget, this film made colossal profits upon initial release – becoming one of the top grossing film of the year in most major markets. Subsequent re-releases have seen this become the second highest grossing Disney film of all time, just behind Snow White, when ticket price inflation is taken into account. If you look at all films, when price adjusted, One Hundred and One Dalmatians places an amazing twelfth.
What makes this all the more interesting is that, when looking at all the Disney films that came before, is how this is such a sea change. For example, this is the first Disney film to not be a musical. Bambi came close, but it still features a lot of non-diegetic singing. The only song we get in One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the very famous song about villain Cruella De Vil.
There is also a big departure in the animation style. Outside of the package films of the 1940s, one of the big things you always got from Disney was lush animation. However, like in Sleeping Beauty, they made an active choice to emulate the sketchy style of British cartoonist Ronald ‘St Trinians’ Searle. It’s the second film in a row where they made such an homage, but that might be the last time for a while.
By casting off some of the shackles of musicality and by using this different rougher animation, One Hundred and One Dalmatians manages to succeed in a huge way that would have otherwise been hampered by regular breaks for songs – tension. Well, tension for a family movie that features a crazy socialite that wants to skin 99 puppies in order to make a coat.
Seriously though, how great a villain is Cruella De Vil and her minions. The moment she sashays onto the screen is the introduction of one of the great animated villains. As a kid it’s hard to completely grasp the horrors that she wants to unleash by killing and skinning all those puppies – really if there was any fictional character that helped to turn generations of children off of fur, it was her.
For me One Hundred and One Dalmatians marks the end of Disney’s second period of consistently good films and we won’t get another one until The Little Mermaid. Sure, some classics will still be coming up in between – but they’ll be punctuated with a lot of Disney’s lesser films.