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101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

101 Dalmatians (1961) movie poster One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Theatrical Release: January 25, 1961 / Running Time: 79 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton S. Luske, Clyde Geronimi / Writers: Bill Peet (screenplay), Dodie Smith (book The Hundred and One Dalmatians)

Voice Cast: Rod Taylor (Pongo), J. Pat O'Malley (Jasper, Colonel), Betty Lou Gerson (Cruella De Vil, Miss Birdwell), Martha Wentworth (Nanny, Lucy, Queenie), Ben Wright (Roger Radcliff), Cate Bauer (Perdita), Dave Frankham (Sgt. Tibs), Fred Worlock (Horace, Inspector Craven), Lisa Davis (Anita), Tom Conway (Collie, Quizmaster), Tudor Owen (Towser), George Pelling (Danny), Ramsay Hill (Labrador, TV Announcer), Sylvia Marriott (Two-Tone), Queenie Leonard (Princess), Marjorie Bennett (Duchess), Micky Maga (Patch), Barbara Beaird (Rolly), Mimi Gibson (Lucky), Sandra Abbott (Penny), Thurl Ravenscroft (Captain), Bill Lee (Roger - singing), Max Smith, Bob Stevens (Thunderbolt), Paul Wexler (Fidget), Mary Wickes (Freckles), Barbara Luddy (Rover), Lisa Daniels (Perdita), Helene Stanley (Pepper), Don Barclay (Truck Driver), Dal McKennon (Dipstick), Jeanne Bruns (Radio Singer)

Songs: "Cruella De Vil", "Kanine Krunchies", "Dalmatian Plantation"

Buy 101 Dalmatians from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD 2008 Platinum Edition DVD 1999 Limited Issue DVD Instant Video

Walt Disney's studio spent almost the entire 1950s working on Sleeping Beauty and when it was released in January of 1959, nearly four full years had passed since a previous animated feature's debut. The ambitious, costly, Tchaikovsky-flavored fairy tale nearly bankrupted Disney, so it was quite opportune that the already-in-progress next animated feature wouldn't take nearly as long or much to produce.
That film, 101 Dalmatians, harked back to Sleeping's immediate predecessor, the 1955 hit Lady and the Tramp, by centering on a cast of talking dogs. But even compared to that CinemaScope canine comedy, it was decidedly down-to-earth.

Adapted from Englishwoman Dodie Smith's 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the film launches with one of the livelier credits sequences to head an animated Disney feature, before moving to an equally spirited sincere start. We are introduced to a pair of London bachelors: the lovesick dalmatian Pongo and his pipe-smoking songwriter "pet" Roger Radcliff. Pongo narrates as he scopes out and assesses human/dog pairs of females parading down the sidewalk. When he spots a pretty dalmatian and her equally fetching lady, Pongo pounces on the opportunity to drag Roger out to the park for a walk. Not all goes as planned, but love wins out and, very soon, Roger and the woman, Anita, are exchanging marital vows while Pongo and his lady, named Perdita, enter a similar arrangement.

While their pets Roger and Anita get married inside the church, Pongo and Perdita cement their own undocumented marriage outside.

The newly-formed four-member Radcliff family isn't overflowing with space or money (though they are able to afford the warm, caring Nanny), but they do seem to have an abundance of love, as evidenced by news of a pregnancy (Perdita's). With the puppies' birth just a few weeks away, Anita is paid a visit by her old schoolmate, the hideous Cruella De Vil, who wishes to lay claim to the newborn dalmatians.

When Roger refuses to let any of Pongo and Perdita's fifteen pups leave their custody, Cruella decides to take matters into her own hands, hiring henchmen Horace and Jasper to commit that most wretched act of dognapping. The remainder of the film details the efforts of the pups and their parents to reunite, with some help from other animals who are summoned by that classic canine communication system, The Twilight Bark. The title count is realized when the young victims are joined by 84 additional dalmatians (these being of the uncollared variety).

Cruella De Vil makes the most of her screentime to become one of cinema's most iconic villains.

101 Dalmatians is probably the best example of a film that embodies the phrase "Disney animated classic" without being especially like its kin or telling a grand story. Particularly in the winning first half, the screenplay is airy, the mood is light, and the setting is downright ordinary. Spending time with the two pleasant couples and the spunky lot of pups is a most welcome task, even if the humor is as gentle as "Rolly" insisting he's still hungry and the offspring investing in a "Lassie"-esque TV program.

In the skeletal, judgmental, chain-smoking, fur-loving Cruella De Vil, the movie uncovers a larger than life villain whose impact lingers,
even if she only claims about as much screentime as her British thugs. Horace and Jasper are naturally doltish, but not in the most expected of ways, and they're written well enough to rank highly on the long list of dim-witted baddies. Still, their duty is mostly performed in the film's latter, more routine portions. It's Cruella who makes the big splash and who is easily distinguished not just as the film's boldest personality but as an antagonist for the ages.

Far from daring or melodramatic, Dalmatians is brisk, breezy, and always very appealing. The turns in the rescue plot sustain interest but don't make the ongoing chase as unforgettable as hoped. Instead, it's the smaller moments and gags that win us over, like the owner/dog pairs who reflect one another (a joke later put to good use in live-action for The Ugly Dachshund), the family dynamic that quickly emerges (and, one wishes, weren't set aside so soon), and the affectionate but still on-target satire of television programming.

Henchmen Horace and Jasper do a lot of Cruella De Vil's villainy for her. The tabby cat Sgt. Tibbs helps the kidnapped dalmatian puppies escape the clutches of Horace and Jasper.

Sometimes, you don't need more than a functional concept, a good story, and durable characters. With little music and only slightly more action, 101 Dalmatians handily becomes one of Disney's best animated features. Cruella De Vil stands as the film's most memorable creation, both in the angular woman herself and the tune Roger pens in her honor. The most recent Disney character to crack the American Film Institute's 100 Heroes and Villains list, Cruella ranked 39th among cinema's scoundrels. (Interestingly, the heroic counterpart for her rank was none other than Lassie.) The film certainly does have more than just a good villain to offer and it has stood the test of time, wielding the power to charm today's audiences over 50 years since its initial release.

101 Dalmatians first appeared on DVD in the fall of 1999 among the nine animated Disney films released as barren "Limited Issue" discs. In 2008, it finally received a worthier release as a 2-Disc Platinum Edition DVD. It's taken another long wait for the movie to hit Blu-ray, becoming one of Disney's last animated features to reach the format in North America. It does so in today's Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack.

Happily, the original Buena Vista Distribution title card is restored to the beginning of the film, dropping the modern Disney logo found at the start of the Platinum Edition DVD's presentation and allowing the movie to be rounded back down to its original 79-minute runtime. (A brief incarnation of the current CG castle still plays at the film's end.)

101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 5.1 DTS-HD HR (French), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish), Dolby Mono 1.0 (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), Dolby Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, English, French, Spanish; DVD only: Portuguese
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: February 10, 2015 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Amazon Instant Video Previous DVDs: 2-Disc Platinum Edition (March 4, 2008) and Limited Issue (November 9, 1999)

VIDEO and AUDIO

101 Dalmatians sports fantastic picture quality on Blu-ray. The 1.37:1 Academy Ratio visuals stay true to the film's original look, while gaining the detail, clarity, and vibrancy you expect of a Disney high definition release. Gladly, this movie does not suffer from any of the issues that plague fellow '60s 'toon The Sword in the Stone. Nor does its framing prompt any concerns about the accuracy of its aspect ratio. No matter how closely you're looking, you won't notice a single unintended flaw (the TV programs watched have imperfections by design, as broadcasts did back then).

The default soundtrack is presented in 7.1 DTS-HD master audio. This remix does not boast a tremendous amount of directionality and
nothing that feels like a betrayal to the film's original monaural sound design. Happily, Disney does right by purists by including an alternate English soundtrack resembling the original theatrical experience in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. You can't go wrong with either track, with the 7.1 mix doing a nice job of distributing the different elements but the mono one still keeping dialogue crisp and audible at all times.

There is the option on Blu-ray to watch the movie with DisneyView bars making up the difference between the film's squarish aspect ratio and the format's native 16:9 frame. New ambient artwork created by longtime Disney background and landscape artist Michael Humphries changes frequently to match the film's visuals in color and tone. DisneyView remains a well-intentioned but truly unnecessary feature, which requires inordinate distraction by and objection to the vertical black bars on the sides of your television being replaced to appreciate.

Thunderbolt and a sheriff try to outwit a bad guy in "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt." Ink and painter Carmen Sanderson recalls working on "101 Dalmatians" in the brand new featurette "Lucky Dogs."

BONUS FEATURES

The Blu-ray's four new HD bonus features begin with "The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt" (1:46), a tasteful new black and white animated short expanding the TV serial the Dalmatians are seen watching in the film.

"Lucky Dogs" (9:08) collects new comments from yesteryear Disney employees including Rolly Crump, Floyd Norman, Burny Mattinson, Carmen Sanderson, and Lisa Davis, the voice of Anita. Complemented by views of real Dalmatians running around the studio, they recall the technical specifics of making Dalmatians.

Cameron Boyce, a young actor who will play Cruella De Vil's son in an upcoming Disney Channel movie, hosts "411 on 101." Walt Disney talks 101 Dalmatians with a dalmatian on his desk in "Walt Disney Presents: The Best Doggoned Dog in the World."

The fluffy "411 on 101" (5:20) allows Cameron Boyce (of Disney Channel's "Jessie" and upcoming Descendants in which he'll play Carlos De Vil, son of Cruella) to give us five reasons why 101 Dalmatians is the best dog-gone Disney dog movie ever. It's pretty obnoxious, but some fun facts are revealed and maybe the tweens it's aimed at will enjoy it.

Next we get a full episode of "Walt Disney Presents" titled "The Best Doggoned Dog in the World" (51:05). This black and white 1961 broadcast from Walt Disney's long-running, weekly anthology series promotes the then-upcoming 101 Dalmatians for about fifteen minutes. Before and after that, it celebrates dogs, from seeing eye dogs and trackers to avalanche dogs and sheep herding dogs. As a 1960s television program, it is fascinating, especially the parts in which Walt shares the screen with a dalmatian. But it's also a bit of an endurance challenge, since people in the '60s clearly had much greater attention spans (and fewer media options) than we do today. An earlier version of this episode aired in 1957 and devoted partly to promoting Old Yeller accompanies that live-action classic on DVD.

The remaining extras, encoded in standard definition (and most of them also letterboxed within the 1.33:1 frame) fall under the header Classic Bonus Features and all of them appeared on the film's 2008 Platinum Edition DVD.

Animation producer/historian Hans Perk talks in front of 101 Dalmatians books in the 2008 documentary "Redefining the Line." With the gallery dropped, this shot from "Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad" gives us a rare glimpse of live-action reference footage. An actress portrays Dodie Smith, the author whose correspondence with Walt is dramatized in "Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney."

"Redefining the Line: The Making of One Hundred and One Dalmatians" can be seen as seven subject-specific shorts or a single 34-minute documentary. It's a good, if ordinary, overview of production which rounds up the usual Disney and Pixar animators to sing praises and a handful of historians to contextualize. Though it supplies insightful stories and lots of information, the piece seems to struggle to find aspects unique to Dalmatians worth discussing.
Still, the contemporary setting, Bill Peet's single-handed story treatment, the shortage of music, contributions of specific animators, and the xerography technique are all remarked upon and to some level of interest. Now in their eighth year of making these types of DVD retrospectives, it seems like Disney could use a little inspiration in this department and stands to improve on this fine but not so fresh fragmented formula.

"Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad" (7:07) brings back many of the present-day animators to gush over 101 Dalmatians' villain. Their praise is divided between author Dodie Smith, story man Bill Peet, animator Marc Davis, voice actress Betty Lou Gerson, and live-action reference model Mary Wickes. It's a short but appropriate and sustaining bonus.

"Sincerely Yours, Walt Disney" (12:35) is a fun piece which documents a series of correspondences between Walt and author Dodie Smith regarding the production of the adaptation. It's aided by the use of actors who visually complement the selective letter readings. Smith's concerns and reactions are interesting, as are Disney's responses, while a narrator serves to contextualize the exchanges and 101 with other activities occupying Walt's time back then.

101 Dalmatians is advertised in different ways for different engagements. Selena Gomez has held on to relevance for seven years now. Roger channels Cruella De Vil inthe story sketches for the deleted number "March of the One Hundred and One."

101 Dalmatians is the rare Disney animated film whose marketing campaign gets preserved for general consumption. First, a Trailers & TV Spots section includes a trailer, TV spot, and CinemaScope-formatted teaser from 1961, a theatrical trailer and two TV spots plus a third promoting a double feature with Swiss Family Robinson from 1969, three TV spots (one of them, French-Canadian) and a trailer from 1979, and a trailer from Christmas 1985.

Another section holds twelve promotional radio spots (three from the original 1961 theatrical release, six from a 1969 reissue, and three from a 1979 reissue), but sorely lacks a "Play All" feature, especially since ads run as short as ten seconds.

Finally, a Music & More section starts with the music video for Selena Gomez's 2008 cover of "Cruella De Vil" (3:20), which balances predictable singer-against-spots footage with movie clips and scenes from a less expected fashion runway setting. The song aspires to a Hannah Montana sound, complete with electronic trickery and generic interpretation.

Also here is the deleted number "March of the One Hundred and One" (2:29), which is recorded by the cast and played within context to story sketches (1:55).

Like the Platinum DVD, this Diamond Edition Blu-ray supplies a wealth of abandoned songs... ...demo recordings and alternate versions.

It is followed by two Abandoned Songs: an alternate, longer newly-recorded version
called "Cheerio, Good-Bye, Toodle-oo, Hip Hip!" (2:30) that's set up by Disney historian Russell Schroeder, in which the puppies sing with excitement about going to London for Christmas. Next comes "Don't Buy a Parrot from a Sailor" (2:39), an English pub chantey that was to be performed by henchmen Horace and Jasper.

The remaining Demo Recordings and Alternate Versions are renditions of music that made the film. "Dalmatian Plantation" is heard in a longer, slower cast recording (2:20) and a temp version (1:00) by go-to Disney quartet The Mellomen. A staggering number of options are offered on the most famous song, "Cruella De Vil." There are demos of a "spooky" version called "The Creation of Cruella De Vil" (4:50) which painfully removes any subtlety from the character's name and a blues ballad version (2:20) which resembles the final product. Roger's brainstorming composing sessions are heard from speaking voice Ben Wright (3:06), singer/dubber Bill Lee with direction (4:30), and in a honky-tonk piano version (1:25). The song comes to an end with three different (but universally annoying) vocal versions (1:11, 2:20, 1:15) of the song as a radio hit. Finally, we get 9 alternate recordings (5:55) of the Kanine Krunchies commercial jingle by Lucille Bliss, performing the tune with such sounds as "Very Young", "Older English", and "Eton Boy."

Keeping with Disney's tradition of devaluing DVD, the combo pack's secondary disc -- one they apparently aren't even bothering selling on its own -- only includes "411 on 101", the Selena Gomez music video, and "Cruella De Vil: Drawn to Be Bad" in the way of bonus features.

The discs open with promos for Disney Movies Anywhere, Aladdin: Diamond Edition, Cinderella (2015), and a Dalmatians-themed anti-smoking PSA. The Sneak Peeks listing plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, "Dog with a Blog", "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" - The Lost Missions, Big Hero 6, and Legend of the Neverbeast.

WHAT'S MISSING?

Completists will lament that a number of Platinum Edition DVD extras fail to make the leap to Blu-ray here, but it is mostly material you're unlikely to revisit with any frequency. Dropped are the Virtual Dalmatian set-top sampler and its more expansive DVD-ROM version, the Puppy Profiler personality quiz, and two Fun with Language games. More significantly lost are seven art galleries consisting of 248 stills ranging from concept art to production photos and both family and fan modes of playback-enhancing Pop-Up Trivia Facts.

Dogs and their pets pass by on the 101 Dalmatians: Diamond Edition Blu-ray and DVD main menu.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The main menu surveys the neighborhood, with characters riding by while piano plays. Typical for Disney, the Blu-ray remembers where you left off watching the movie but does not make resuming playback any easier than that, so try not to leave bonus features partially watched.

The two discs occupy a side-snapped keepcase which is topped by a slipcover giving the reproduced artwork a reflective silver touch. A booklet provides your magic code for the digital copy and another insert promotes the Disney Movie Club.

The happy ending of "101 Dalmatians" sees the Radcliff family reunited and expanded to 101 Dalmatians, some of them still covered in soot.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

101 Dalmatians got one of Disney's lighter Platinum Edition DVDs in terms of content. This Blu-ray adds over an hour of new bonus features, most of it an over 50-year-old television episode that will put many to sleep. The set also drops the art galleries and games found on the movie's two-disc DVD.

And yet, this is still a set that is easy to recommend because it clearly provides the finest home video presentation to date of one of Walt Disney's most endearing animated films. Others may prefer the fairy tales with their romance and songs, but this enjoyable canine caper doesn't require a mood or predilection. Its comedy keeps amusing, its story keeps engaging, and its characters keep provoking strong reactions as intended. It's a film you are not likely to outgrow, whether you revisit it around once a decade like the studio or more frequently.

Buy 101 Dalmatians from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / 2008 Platinum Edition DVD / 1999 Limited Issue DVD / Instant Video

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
Disney Diamond Editions: The Jungle Book Lady and the Tramp Peter Pan Cinderella Bambi
The Little Mermaid The Lion King Beauty and the Beast Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1960s on Blu-ray: Mary Poppins The Sword in the Stone Oliver! Babes in Toyland Funny Girl
Disney Animation: The Aristocats Oliver & Company The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh The Fox and the Hound Dumbo Bolt
101 Dalmatians (1996) The Shaggy Dog Disney DVD Game World: Disney Dogs Edition

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Reviewed February 10, 2015.