The first few minutes of One Hundred and One Dalmatians completely bowled me over. Since I have been watching all of the Disney films in chronological order, I have been able to see the evolution of the studio’s animation style. The roughness of movement and line apparent in Snow White were soon smoothed out. By the time of Bambi, the background paintings were works of art in the own right. By the time Cinderella was released, the Disney style was, in my opinion at least, too clean. This was even more so in Sleeping Beauty. The title sequence and opening shots of Dalmatians are of an entirely different style, which I find much hipper and jazzier. A little checking online quickly revealed why.
As Disney animate featured became more refined, they also became more expensive. Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959 as a 70mm, widescreen, stereo film. Although the format was designed to impress, it was expensive. The production cost $6 million, or more than twice the budget of each of the studio’s previous three animated films. Although it just barely made back its production costs, its poor performance at the box office resulted in the company posting its first loss in a decade in 1960.
This is when Ub Iwerks stepped in. Iwerks was Disney’s oldest friend, and was the technical genius at the studio, usually credited with “visual effects.” Iwerks was like Steve Wozniak to Walt Disney’s Steve Jobs. With the studio in financial difficulties and Walt considering shutting down the animation department completely, Iwerks began experimenting with the new technology of Xerox photography. He found that animator pencil sketches could be photographed and printed directly onto cells, bypassing the labor intensive inking department. Cutting out the hand inking process reduced the animation staff from 500 to less than 100. Jobs were lost, but it allowed the studio to continue with animated features which Walt was regretfully about to abandon.
The result of the new process was a rough style which clearly showed pencils lines and sometimes allowed colors to spill out past their boundaries. Although this was style that caught my eye after watching so many Disney films, Walt himself hated it, thinking it destroyed the fantasy of animation. He reportedly held a grudge against the film which he relented only during his very last visit to the studio shortly before his death. Despite his feelings about it, the style was new and would influence not only animation in the ’60s and ’70s, but also magazine and advertising illustration.
The animation style has a more mature feel to it, and the story does as well. It is still about anthropomorphic dogs in love, much like The Lady and the Tramp, but this film is more about the struggle to find, and to keep it once you have found it. The London setting probably does a lot to help make the story more sophisticated. The only thing that is odd about it is that two dogs with British accents have puppies with American accents. But I guess if you are willing to accept talking dogs, you have to also accept that they might talk differently than their parents.
Then, of course, there is Cruella De Vil, the greatest of the great Disney villains, and clearly modeled after one of my favorite actresses, Tallulah Bankhead.