101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition Blu-ray Review

The last truly great animated film personally supervised by Walt Disney before his death, 101 Dalmatians ranks head and shoulders over other 1960s releases like The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book (later efforts also supervised by Disney) and was not surpassed by another animated Disney effort until The Little Mermaid over a quarter of a century later. Its undeniable quality, an animated comic thriller matched only in tension and heart by Pinocchio, found a ready audience in 1961 and in all of its subsequent theatrical reissues. In fact, for years it ranked as the studio’s highest grossing animated feature. Revisiting it now after a break of several years proves that the film has lost none of its charm, humor, or thrills. It truly deserves the Diamond Edition Blu-ray treatment it receives with this release. Available for over a year on Blu-ray in other regions, it’s finally been made available stateside in a combination Blu-ray/DVD release.

Studio: Disney

Distributed By: N/A

Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Audio: English 1.0 DD (Mono), English 7.1 DTS-HDMA, Spanish 5.1 DD, Other

Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French

Rating: G

Run Time: 1 Hr. 19 Min.

Package Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy

keep case in a slipcover

Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)

Region: ABC

Release Date: 02/10/2015

MSRP: $36.99

The Production Rating: 4.5/5

Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer), two noble London Dalmatians, are delighted when their pet humans Roger (Ben Wright, singing voice of Bill Lee) and Anita (Lisa Davis) are married, and the family soon adds fifteen adorable Dalmatian puppies to its number. There’s danger lurking, however, in the evil person of Anita’s old schoolmate Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson) who adores fur coats and desires to have one made from Dalmatian puppy fur. She’s certain her old, poor friend Anita will let the fifteen pups do for a start, and she has plans of purchasing every other Dalmatian puppy she can get her hands on to fulfill her heart’s desire. When her friend refuses to part with the puppies, however, Cruella has her henchmen Horace (Fred Warlock) and Jasper (J. Pat O’Malley) steal the dogs and keep them under wraps on her old family estate in the country until the proper time arrives that they can be skinned for her new coat. The pups’ only chance is to escape from the evil clutches of these fiends, and for that they’re going to need a lot of help.

The stylized look chosen for 101 Dalmatians met with some criticism at the time of the original release since it was so different from the classic storybook animation of all of Disney’s past successes, but hindsight has enabled us to see its quality and appreciate it apart from the more elaborate and fluid animation of Bambi or Peter Pan. It’s a look as individual as the story itself, a dogs’ eye view of the world with highly static backgrounds and humans often grotesquely limbed and clothed. And the Xerox process perfected by longtime Disney contributor Ub Iwerks used to make the handling of all those spotted dogs feasible works to perfection allowing the animators to invest time and talent into giving many of these puppies real personalities paired with some terrific voice casting. At the same time, the animation storytellers haven’t spared the humor or the heart in the movie. A sequence where Roger brings a stillborn puppy back to life captures the nuances of emotion on both the human and dog faces to perfection, and the bumbling henchman of Cruella and her broad caricature of a witchy-like fiend are endlessly comical.

Rod Taylor was just coming into his own stardom around the time of this release, and he makes a sincere and steady Pongo, but the hit of the movie has to be the Tallulah Bankhead-esque vocal histrionics of Betty Lou Gerson as Cruella. The witchiest non-witch in the history of the Disney animated features, she’s a nightmarish delight sweeping into a room with her venal green cigarette smoke trailing along behind her, bowling over everyone in sight with her insulting opinions and uninhibited desires. And her huge red limousine careening around the countryside fits her oversized personality to perfection, barreling along ready to mow anyone or anything down that gets in her way. Ben Wright and Lisa Davis are sweet and spirited as Pongo and Perdita, and Fred Warlock and J. Pat O’Malley bray and grovel to perfection as Cruella’s “gang.”

101 Dalmatians relies less on songs than any other Disney animated movie up to that time. There are three numbers, but only one will stay with you: “Cruella De Vil” will haunt your psyche for days after watching this movie for the first or the one hundred and first time. As for the rest of the movie, the breathless, extended escape from the potential killers makes for a really tense number of climactic sequences, and the brilliant plotting by Bill Peet (based on Dodie Smith’s original book) keeps audience pulses racing as the escapees somehow manage to foil their own attempts continuously and of necessity must find other ways to elude capture. Mention should also be made of the most imaginative opening credits in Disney animated feature history up to that time. Superb animation, terrific voice acting, and a superlatively thrilling story combine to make 101 Dalmatians a true treasure in the Disney canon.

Video Rating: 4/5  3D Rating: NA

As with previous home video versions of the film, it’s presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. (I had my Samsung Blu-ray player zoom the image slightly to 1.66:1 to no ill effect and gave a likely more accurate view of the way the movie must have been presented theatrically.) As with all of the classic animated features, Disney has digitally scrubbed the film of grain to fit its desire for the film to appear more like today’s computer animated pictures, but the DNR does have the effect of making some of the more delicate lines in the moving animation images come and go and blur somewhat distractingly. It’s not so much a problem with the Dalmatians since their lines are so solid, but other characters like the Colonel (also voiced by J. Pat O’Malley) have the same kind of problems seen in The Sword and the Stone, just not quite to such a disturbing degree. Color is certainly first-rate, and even Cruella’s elongated fire engine red roadster doesn’t bloom. There is also no banding present to distract from the visuals. The movie has been divided into 16 chapters.

Audio Rating: 4/5

The disc offers the original mono mix in Dolby Digital 1.0 as well as a new Disney enhanced home theater mix in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. While the film’s mono origins are still often noticeable (the Twilight Bark sequence has dog howls in the distance still coming from the center channel instead of discretely placed in various available surround channels), the wonderfully jazzy and jaunty George Bruns music score gets a nice spread through the soundstage, and there are occasionally discrete effects of country sounds placed in the fronts or rears, and there is some nice bass in the mix as well. Dialogue has been excellently recorded and appears in the center channel.

Special Features Rating: 4.5/5

The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt (1:46, HD): a quick wrap-up of the Thunderbolt TV show the pooches are watching during the movie.

Lucky Dogs (9:08, HD): several of the legends from Disney’s classic era of animation offer sound bites of their memories working at the studio, among them Rolly Crump, Floyd Norman, and Lisa Davis.

Dalmatians 101 (5:20, HD): The Disney Channel’s Cameron Royce (who will play Cruella’s son in a summer Disney release) offers five things that are cool about 101 Dalmatians.

Walt Disney Presents: “The Best Doggoned Dog in the World” (51:05, HD): a 1961 episode of the series which offered some teaser clips from the movie and also relates stories about other special dogs from around the world.

DisneyView: the user may choose to watch the movie with this feature turned on: art panels which replace the pillarboxing on either side of the picture.

Redefining the Line: The Making of 101 Dalmatians (33:55, SD): paean to the film by current Disney animation personnel along with archived interviews with many of the people responsible for making it. The documentary is divided into seven segments which can be viewed together or individually.

Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad (7:10, SD): a featurette mostly with animator Marc Davis talking about his work on this legendary villainess. We also see some stills of actress Mary Wickes who did the live action reference footage for the animators.

Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney (12:48, SD): an interesting feature on the correspondence between Walt and original author Dodie Smith with restaged excerpts from their back and forth communications over a period of years during the production of the movie.

Trailers and TV Spots (SD): there are trailers and TV spots for the 1961 original release (3 total), 1969 reissue (4 total), 1979 reissue (4 total), and one 1985 reissue trailer. There are 3 radio spots of varying lengths for the 1961 release, 6 for the 1969 reissue, and 3 for the 1979 reissue.

Music & More (SD): deals with the six songs that were either used in the film or written and discarded at various stages of the production. The deleted song (“March of the One Hundred and One” - 2:29) features the original dialog and singing audio track and the storyboards for the sequence. Two other cut songs are presented in demo form: “Cheerio, Good-bye” (2:32) and “Don’t Buy a Parrot from a Sailor” (2:39). For the three songs that actually appear in the movie, each has demo versions plus numerous takes of various actors attempting to put down suitable recordings (“Dalmatian Plantation" 2:45, 1:03) and “Kanine Krunchies” (nine versions totaling 5:14). Most interesting here is “Cruella De Vil” which features a spooky original (3:47) and a blues (2:15) version as well as actor Ben Wright trying to do his own singing as Roger (3:24). We then get several takes of famed voice double Bill Lee first trying to mimic Wright’s British accent and then opting to sing in his own voice (4:29). A honky tonk version (1:22) closes out the section.

Promo Trailers (HD): Aladdin, the live action Cinderella.

DVD/Digital Copy: code sheet and disc enclosed in the package.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

One of the true classics of Disney animation, 101 Dalmatians finally arrives stateside in a handsome Blu-ray set mostly worthy of its pedigree. Though it does lack a commentary and some of the bonus feature games and trivia tracks are missing in the move from the Platinum Edition DVD to this Diamond Edition Blu-ray, the movie itself is as enchanting and entertaining as ever. Recommended!

Reviewed By: Matt Hough

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