Pongo, Perdita and unnamed puppy. From the cover of the Dell comic book adaptation.


Original Medium: Illustrated prose
Produced as a cartoon by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: 1956
Creator: Dodie Smith
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During their first couple of decades, Disney's animated features had a strong tendency to take place in fantasy worlds, from Snow White's magical forest, where wicked witches were a real threat, to Peter Pan's Neverland. 101 Dalmatians, however, …

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… like the earlier Lady & the Tramp and the later AristoCats, was set in a modern, mostly urban landscape, and concerned the adventures of ordinary pets — ordinary with the exception, of course, of being able to talk with one another.

The Dalmatians movie was distinguished from the other "urban pet adventure" films by featuring one of Disney's most memorable villains. Cruella De Vil, whose passion was dalmatian-skin coats, was right up there with Stromboli, Maleficent and the few others who qualify as the best of the best. Cruella had it all. She was emotionally volatile, over-the-top eccentric, and evil to the point of sociopathy. Whatever she did, she did flamboyantly; and wherever she went, she brought chaos. Animated, she was the work of Marc Davis, one of the "Nine Old Men" Disney would brag about having at his back. Davis gave a lot of credit to Dodie Smith, who wrote the book the movie was based on and was the actual creator of the story and its characters.

Smith's book came out in 1956. It took five years to turn it into an animated classic, which was released January 25, 1961. Technically, it was a stupendous achievement. Never before had anyone even attempted to animate a creature with such complex markings as a dalmatian — let alone 101 of them. Even tigers, which are tedious and time-consuming to draw as repetitively as animation requires, aren't as hard to animate as dalmatians — and yet, carefully drawn tigers, too, are scarce in earlier animation. What made it possible was the technical wizardry of long-time Disney associate Ub Iwerks (Flip the Frog), who adapted Xerox technology for the purpose. Six years later, it was possible to use Shere Khan, a tiger, as a major character in The Jungle Book.

The story concerned Cruella's kidnapping of the 15 puppies of Pongo and Perdita, a pair of adult dalmatians, in pursuit of her conscience-free endeavor. A police investigation proves useless. Pongo and Perdita track Cruella to her lair, where 84 more dalmatian puppies hopelessly await the axe. Needless to say, the heroes free the would-be victims and, after a chase scene showing Cruella at her worst, all 101 make their way home — where, of course, the humans in charge are glad to adopt the whole lot of them.

Pongo's voice was provided by Rod Taylor and Perdita's by Cate Bauer, both of whom have few-to-zero other voice credits (tho Taylor is well known for face acting). Their masters, Roger and Anita, were Ben Wright and Lisa Davis, respectively, who are similarly credited for voice work (tho Wright has had a few voice roles, such as Grimsby in The Little Mermaid). Miscellaneous voices included J. Pat O'Malley (both Tweedles in Alice in Wonderland), Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger) and Tim Conway (who narrated Peter Pan). And Cruella De Vil was Betty Lou Gerson, a face actress whose sparse animated credits include having narrated Cinderella.

The movie succeeded both critically and at the box office. Merchandised products abounded, naturally including a comic book adaptation by Dell Comics. The movie was re-released several times over the years, always accompanied by a reprint of the comic book by Gold Key. It was also adapted into Sunday newspaper comics as part of King Features' Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales.

Decades later, 101 Dalmatians had a spin-off that remains unique among Disney's animated features. A live-action remake, with Glenn Close (Mother Simpson, Kala in Disney's Tarzan) as Cruella De Vil, went into general release on November 27, 1996. This was followed by a half-hour animated TV series, which began September 1, 1997, in which April Winchell (Kid Power) played Cruella. Close reprised her role in a live-action sequel, 102 Dalmatians, released November 22, 2000.

Then came what has become a perfectly ordinary spin-off — a sequel that went straight to home video. 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure was released on video on January 21, 2003. In this one, Cruella was played by Susanne Blakeslee (Wanda in Fairly OddParents). A new character, Thunderbolt, was voiced by Barry Bostwick (famous for face, not voice acting); and Thunderbolt's sidekick, Lightning, was Jason Alexander (Duckman). Patch himself was Bobby Lockwood, who has few acting credits of any kind.

Also, since the Close movie, there has been a steady stream of video games, "making of" videos, etc. Not to mention the usual flood of merchandise.


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Text ©2007-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Disney Productions.