It's hard to tell who's giddier with anticipation each time the great whoosh of the fabled Disney vault signals another classic animated film is to see the light of day - kids, or the parents who grew up with these beloved movies now seriously steeped in nostalgia. The 2008 release of the two-disc Platinum Edition of 101 Dalmatians puts the notion to an interesting sort of test; many adults have seen the cel-animated Dalmatians (probably far more than have read the Dodie Smith book upon which it was based), and likely many more of today's children have seen the live-action remake and its sequel (102 Dalmatians), both starring Glenn Close as that ultimately evil villainess Cruella de Vil. Hmmm... Maybe a better question would be who wins between the alarmingly high-cheekboned cartoon and Close's delightfully over-the-top human versions?
I'd have to vote for the original - she still scares me.
Speaking of comparisons, it's probably no accident that 101 Dalmatians bears some striking similarities to another recently un-vaulted classic, The Aristocats. It's not as if Walt and his team couldn't recognize a winning formula when they saw it. Yet somehow as a parent - and former child - I'd never before noticed the strong parallels betwixt the two.
Both movies (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman) feature animal families lost and/or separated, threatened by sinister humans, and aided by a panoply of other sympathetic - and often astonishingly similar - animals to overcome the threat. Oh, and don't forget love. Dalmatians came first, in 1961, and as mentioned was based on the book by Dodie Smith; 1970's Aristocats was an original story, albeit one with obvious lineage in the direction of Dalmatians and 1955's Lady and the Tramp.
In 101 Dalmatians, bored bachelor dog Pongo thinks it's long past high time that his pet, Londoner songwriter Roger, found a mate. How lucky, then, when he spots the perfect woman and she just happens to be being walked by the epitome of female canine perfection? In short order, Pongo and Perdita fall in love, Anita and Roger marry, and they all move into a comfortable house (complete with a housekeeper named Nanny) where Perdita's first litter - numbering an incredible fifteen pups - is born.
There's hardly a moment long enough to celebrate the new additions to the family before a storm wind blows in Anita's old schoolmate: the skeletally thin, fashionably fur-clad Cruella de Vil. The haughty diva demands that Anita sell her the pups immediately. Roger stands up to her in refusal, and Cruella whirls out in a fury. When a woman like that tells you you'll be sorry, odds are that you really will be.
Cruella's two Cockney henchman abduct the pups and spirit them off to an abandoned mansion in the country, where Pongo and Perdita's offspring are to be held with 84 other spotted young Dalmatians until they are big enough to - ugh - be turned into a one-of-a-kind coat for Cruella's closet (a creepy enough prospect that one book-of-the-movie version we own states that Cruella plans to sell the pups to the circus instead). No one knows where the puppies have been taken, and the police are having no luck. It's up to the message relay of the twilight bark to try to locate the puppies before Cruella has her way, and to Pongo and Perdita to make the dangerous trek to rescue their little ones and bring the whole lot of them safely back home.
The best of the trademark Disney original music in this film has got to be what becomes Roger's first big hit - "Cruella de Vil," a catchy melodic warning to steer clear of that hyperbolically devilish woman (a video pop update of the tune by Selena Gomez is included in the bonus features). Best animal aid effort goes to the rural interspecies military trio of the Colonel, Captain, and Sergeant Tibs. The blustery old dog, solid horse and dependable (and probably long-suffering) cat are instrumental in reuniting the Dalmatian pups - and not just the original 15 - with Pongo and Perdita.
This DVD edition is highly recommended - as is The Aristocats. To get the optimum family entertainment out of each, though, don't watch them too close together. That's the best way to enjoy what is unique to each film, instead of focusing on what is too similar.
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