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Blu-ray Review: 101 Dalmatians

Blu-ray Review: 101 Dalmatians

The 1961 Disney animated classic, 101 Dalmatians makes its long-awaited Blu-ray debut this week with some genuinely notable
bonus features and the always-beguiling Cruella De Vil.

The biggest
stars of Dalmatians aren’t all those
puppies, Cruella De Vil (I know…but wait until the point is made), or even the
sea change in Disney animation design. It’s the lines.

The Xerox
lines dominate every frame of 101
Dalmatians
. They influence the look of the characters, the backgrounds and
the animation itself. This touchstone in Disney animation is explained and
demonstration extensively in several of the bonus features on this new Blu-ray.

It is made
abundantly clear that Walt Disney did not like the look, for a number of
theoretical reasons, as recalled by Disney Legends, artists and historians
including Floyd Norman, Andreas Deja, Brian Sibley and many, many others.
Frankly, as kids, we didn’t like the Xerox lines very much either. “Is this
another Disney cartoon with the ‘scritchy lines’?” we would ask each other
throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. For us, the only feature in which it seemed to
work completely was in 101 Dalmatians.

The new
Blu-ray is a long-awaited glimpse at that glorious marriage between the lines
and the backgrounds, the infinitely watchable quintessence of Cruella, the
skillful balance of character and story and the astonishing absence of archaic
material for a film over 50 years old (particularly the disgusting ambition of
Cruella to skin the puppies and make them into furs—imagine what Bob Barker
would say).

Most
satisfactory about the new Blu-ray is the abundance of quality bonus material.
Not all of the recent Disney feature releases on Blu-ray have been so generous;
some have even cut back on such treasures. The only things left off this
package from the 2008 DVD are some games and activities. The deleted songs,
superb documentaries and especially an item called “Sincerely Yours, Walt
Disney” is included: a charming look at the warm correspondence between author
Dodie Smith, who was delighted with the Disney treatment of her work, and Walt
Disney, who was relieved that at least one writer expressed pleasure rather
than venom (Smith was the anti-Travers).

Only three bonus
items appear on the DVD, but the Blu-ray carries the best features from 2008 on
to the new disc. The new features include a new animated short, “The Further
Adventures of Thunderbolt,” that works footage of the puppies watching TV from
the 1961 film into new animation about the courageous canine hero and his
previously unseen human crime-fighting partner. Other features more reflections
from artists and historians and a trivia lesson from a Disney Channel star (say
what you want about the synergy and the tween approach, but it does convey to
kids the joy of Disney history).

But the
most precious bonus is a full 1961 episode of the Disneyland TV show with three
separate segments. Walt narrates two of them: a general look at dogs and a
preview of 101 Dalmatians. Another is
the Rex Allen-narrated Border Collie,
which stirs up nostalgia for those of us who watched the weekly Disney show in
hopes that there would be cartoons, but still hung around for the more frequent
animal programs.

What may
not satisfy Disney animation aficionados with sharp vision is the look of the
Blu-ray. The processing of the image is not as severe as on other recent
animated feature releases, but is certainly noticeable (based on my uneducated,
corrective-lensed eye). The lines are undeniably Xeroxed, but they are slightly
softened, not razor sharp. One theory is that some technical issues with ‘60s
animation, like dust particles, might seem like Blu-ray defects to the viewer
of today who is unaware of such things. So these flaws had to—or were requested
to—be taken out.

The
processing seems gentler than in other Disney Blu-rays, like plastic surgery
that is subtle in one case and very noticeable in others. But just how gentle
is up to the knowledgeable viewer. The color, sound and all the other elements
that make 101 Dalmatians great are all still there. The lines, which are the
film’s “stars”, are discernable as well; they just don’t seem to visually cut as
sharply on TV screens as a Ginsu through a tin can.

I still
love that scene in which Cruella’s car sploshes into the frozen Xerox river and
it’s just as filled with toner as I remember. Cruella may have lost her battle,
but 101 Dalmatians is destined to be
a winner forever.

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