Blu-ray Review: 101 Dalmatians (1961) - Diamond Edition

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Arriving on Blu-ray is Disney’s latest Diamond Edition, the 1961 classic 101 Dalmatians. This cash cow has raked in millions over the years, spawned a sequel and live-action remakes, and helped make Dalmatians one of the most highly sought-after of dog breeds (which, in turn, resulted in complications for families who didn’t do their research about the more challenging aspects of training and caring for the breed). Regardless of its long-term influence, 101 Dalmatians remains an endearing classic and the new edition offers a terrific way to revisit it.

Based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel of the same name (spelled One Hundred and One Dalmatians, as it was the film during its initial release), 101 Dalmatians pretty much saved the animation department of Walt Disney Studios following losses incurred following the expensive Sleeping Beauty, initially a commercial disappointment upon its release two years earlier. As explained in some of the Blu-ray bonus features, the use of Xerox photography was basically a Godsend in terms of reducing the budget. There were also other cost-saving animation breakthroughs made during production, particularly affecting the sequence in which villainess Cruella De Vil’s car is stuck in the snow, utilizing live-action photography as their basis. All of this is delved into within the Diamond Edition supplements. Anyone who thought Dalmatians was just another Disney animated classic will come away from this edition with a deeper sense of respect for the studio’s innovations and determination.

101 Dalmatians poster (184x280).jpgThe concise storytelling, all fitting tidily within a brisk 79 minutes, continues to makes Dalmatians one of the easiest Disney classics to revisit again and again. Maybe it has something to do with its “real world,” then-contemporary setting, which is a nice change of pace from the fairy tale lands and more elaborately fantasy-based and/or “period piece” settings of previous Disney animated films. In London, bachelor Roger (voiced by Ben Wright) is a songwriter looking for a big hit. His beloved Dalmatian Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) wants to see his master paired with a suitable female companion. He plays matchmaker and soon Roger has a mate in Anita (Lisa Davis), who just so happens to have a Dalmatian of her own, Perdita (Cate Bauer). Soon a litter of 15 Dalmatian pups is birthed. Enter one of Disney’s most enduring villains, the fearsome Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson, previously the uncredited narrator of Disney’s Cinderella), who wants to skin scores of Dalmatians for a fur coat.

This was an era in which appropriate voice talent was cast for animated films, vastly different from today’s all-star voice cast model. While some of the voice actors were well known for their physical acting roles, particularly Rod Taylor in this case, the focus seemed to be more specifically on matching the right voice to the right part—regardless of “marquee value.” Rather than “spot the celebrity” voice, audiences could simply appreciate the character that these generally unsung talents brought to their roles. 101 Dalmatians is a great example of the natural, unforced brilliance of the voice acting in Disney’s vintage animated films. With “Cruella De Vil” being the only real featured song in the whole film (and what an unforgettable one it is), Dalmatians soars on the strengths of more subtle charms.

101 Dalmations looks grand on Blu-ray with a spiffy new 1080p transfer that brings to mind other Diamond Edition releases. In other words, it doesn’t sport the natural grain inherent in a film of its era, opting for a more “modernized” grain-free appearance. But whatever DNR was applied, to my eyes it didn’t result in any serious compromise to fine detail. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix, also typical of the other recent Diamond Editions, doesn’t overdo things in terms of expanding what was original a mono audio presentation. The main thing that sounds great is the score, which has been stretched out across the surround spectrum quite nicely. The original mono mix is present as a lossy Dolby Digital track.

The coolest new special feature is, in fact, a vintage piece: “The Best Doggoned Dog in the World,” a 51- minute episode of The Wonderful World of Disney. This black-and-white episode is a nostalgic treat. Also new is The Further Adventures of Thunderbolt, a very brief (under two minutes!) expansion of the cliffhanger TV series we see the Dalmatian pups watching in the movie. It’s a neat idea, though too short to be more than a novelty. Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce hosts “Dalmatians 101,” which is an apt title. The five-minute featurette packs in a great amount of facts about how groundbreaking Dalmatians was for Disney. “Lucky Dogs” (nine minutes) is another new featurette that expands on the story behind the film.

A slew of features from the previous DVD special edition have been ported over, mostly in standard definition. The seven-part “Redefining the Lines” adds up to a 33-minute making-of presentation. There are a bunch of cool odds and ends listed under “Music & More,” including deleted and abandoned songs, plus a Selena Gomez video of “Cruella De Vil.” All in all, the Diamond Edition combines new features with old for a generally satisfying extras package. The Blu-ray also comes with a standard DVD and Digital Copy.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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