101 Dalmatians – Style: How You Wear The Fur

Thoughts On: 101 Dalmatians

Two dogs, Pongo and Perdita, have their litter of 15 pups stolen by the maniacal Cruella De Vil, who wants to turn them into coats.

101 Dalmatians

A great picture, an undeniable Disney classic. 101 Dalmatians is a film that marks a huge change in animation and the general tone of Disney films. This is largely down to style. As is obvious there’s something very pronounced and 60s about the way this film looks…

… and for this, 101 Dalmatians is often seen as one of the most contemporary Disney films ever made. What this picks up on is the welcoming of a technological process and a change in philosophy in Disney animation. To best see this we only need to turn to a previous Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty:

When talking about this in the previous post, I picked up on aesthetics, essentially saying that this isn’t a good looking film. The biggest fault in the design of Sleeping Beauty is in the integration of foreground and background. Quite simply, the characters do not blend into the frame, rather, stick out like a bad attempt at 3D. This hurts not just the viewing experience, but the actual character work as it makes all movement and nuance seem off-balance due to an over focus of the frame. You see a similar thing in TV, on bad posters and in front of some green/blue/silver screens…


With all of these, we are seeing examples of bad lighting. The X-Men posters highlight the face and make no effort to have them blend into the background. With TV, you often see the lighting set-up combined with the distinctive frame-rate and general coverage that gives the TV feel. I’m not a fan of this – at all. It’s way too bright, selling a level of romanticism that just comes of as pretentious and cheap. Finally with CGI and screens… this is a hard game I know little about. But, when it looks bad, it looks bad. We all know this. But, I won’t delve into much criticism on art and design because…


… yeah, I’m not that good at it. However, with 101 Dalmatians we are seeing a huge shift from the style of the classic Disney pictures…

… to a much more distinctive period:

So, what distinguishes the two is, in large part, the way our foreground interacts with the background. As is most obvious with the comparison to Sleeping Beauty…

… we are seeing a much more coherent motif present in the characters and their settings that compliment each other in 101 Dalmatians that isn’t always there in the older pictures. So, like with the posters of X-Men as well as the lighting in TV and bad CGI work, we see the two kings over emphasised, they’re drawn out of the frame by light and colour – also by detail; the backgrounds draw too much attention to themselves.

With the much more impressionistic backgrounds present in 101 Dalmatians we are seeing a movement away from simple romanticism and into a different realm of fantasy. Instead of heightening reality, as you would see in Cinderella and Snow White, through both narrative and aesthetics by brightening story with a texture of sculpted, yet undetailed, perfection…

… 101 Dalmatians skews reality, representing it through shape, filling in the gaps with colour, adding a layer of creative flippancy, a will to have a boisterous and fun adventure…

And such a style works so well because it fits the actual narrative, one that is full of joy and extremely optimistic (something we’ll end on).

What this approach to animation accentuates is the shift away from romanticism in a classic, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, kind of way, into a much lighter take on fantasy that balances realist story telling with romantic subtext. In such, we are not only seeing a use of ordinary people in 101 Dalmatians to tell a optimistic story, but a much more expressive relationship between the two main couples that imbues the film with romance. This is a major turning point in Disney films – the appeal to the group. All centralised emotion in older Disney films are, in large part, about an individual plight. Characters are usually compartmentalised in terms of their goals by the plot, narrative and even direction. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, the parents want their child, the fairies want to look after Aurora, Aurora wants love. Through the plotting and the way characters interact, there’s an implied distance between all of these characters. We don’t see them together much, neither do we feel their paths crossing because the goals and character arcs of the main protagonists are so distinct from those around them. In such, we never feel a closeness between characters. Out of the many Disney films before 101 Dalmatians, you never really feel the bond you do in this picture outside of Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo/Timothy…

This is a very subjective perspective to take as it’s completely down to the individual and how they feel bonds between characters, but, I only feel a familial closeness between characters in Dumbo and the later Disney films (101 Dalmatians, Jungle Book, Aristocrats, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, ect.). You never see much of it in the classic Disney films because of their focus on an almost gothic romance of peril and a constant looming threat. This draws all ties an audience has to individual characters, never really a collective. This isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t mean you can’t invest in narratives of the older films, it simply indicates a changing approach to story. And because this change is emphasised so much in 101 Dalmatians, I see it as a significant marker in the stories Disney tell. There is a shift in this film, mainly through artistic design, that impacts story significantly, translating into big stories told with a greater concentration on friendship, helping one another and sticking to those you love and appreciate.

Without getting too sentimental, let’s touch on the last major difference between the older Disney films and 101 Dalmatians. It’s in the lines:

Notice the pink, blue, purple, red and brown outlines on the figures in Snow White and the strictly black lines in 101 Dalmatians. This is down to the way the drawings where translated to screen. In the older films, rough drawings would have transparent sheets placed over them so that artists could copy a final product with coloured ink from them. With 101 Dalmatians, xerox printing allowed the rough drawings to be printed directly onto the plastic sheets with a printer the size of 3 rooms. This resulted in the loss of the ink department in the Disney Studios, but sped up the process of animation, making it cheaper. To find out more on this, I’d recommend finding the ‘Making Of’ for 101 Dalmatians (any and all Disney films really). But, this small technical detail changed a lot about the style of these films. Firstly, the lines had to be black as xerox printing couldn’t be done in colour. What this meant is that (until technology got better) all outlines had to be monochromatic, giving this rough and bold look present in 101 Dalmatians. What’s more, because the middle man/woman in the ink department transferring rough drawings onto a sheet by hand (which is now the xerox printer’s job) is gone, the artists constructing the rough drawings are now responsible for the final image. There’s a positive and negative to this. The negative is that we lose the artistry of another person and the use of colour lines. The positive is that one artist’s work needn’t be interpreted. In this, there was a refining process that had to be implemented between the rough drawing and it being printed. This meant that construction lines had to be rubbed out and the primary artists’ drawings be as clean as possible. But, this didn’t always go down so well with some artists objecting to their work being touched. This meant drawings sometimes were printed with rougher lines which further emphasised the rugged black lines present in the film, giving it an almost dirty look in comparison to the clean (digitised in the above example – I believe, I could be wrong) frame of Snow White.

In the end, the many stylistic and technological changes in 101 Dalmatian clearly impacted both the viewing experience and the kind of story we see. I’ll say it again, for more about the design of this film, I’d check out the Making Of video (link here if you need one). The final note on design with this film I’ll leave on is a quick comparison…

What George Miller was thinking with these constant push-ins on Immortan Joe (so many terrible names in this film) we can’t know, but, an interesting enough detail, no?

Ok, so the last thing I want to talk about with 101 Dalmatians is the themes and how they combine with the philosophy of aesthetics to build into a narrative with a nice bit of subtext. This film is essentially about being content with what you have. We see this through the comical address of Rob and Anita as Pongo and Perdita’s pets. They are seen by our protagonist to be the ones being used or possessed. This is a nice detail reinforced by the classical use of V.O and perspective in this film; the use of Pongo as the narrator with a crisp British accent. What this idea of pets in Rob and Anita suggests is that the ‘ownership’ of friends says a lot about you as a person. In other words, beauty not too skin deep is important; the beauty of action, of facade, is pivotal to how we live our lives. So, with Rob and Anita seeing their dogs as almost family, we are seeing a use of them completely opposite to…

Cruella literally wants to take the dogs and wear them as to make herself look… more attractive?? This vain and pointless use of dogs, man’s best friend, is demonstrated to have fatal implications through Cruella and her henchmen:

The commentary of the film is then all about a relationship between the external world and an internal one. Essentially, what we put out into the world is often a great judge of what we’ll get back. We thus see a nice adage to the concept of ‘bad guys never win’ in 101 Dalmatians with the symbolic justification being of fur: animals and how we treat them. Whilst there are no strong undertones of animals rights against fur trade in this picture, there is an appeal to simply being a good person in a familial sense. The lasting word of the film is then, if you simply try to take from this world, you’ll be left with nothing, if you put something back in…

… you’ll be left with an abundance of return. We then see a simple story and message told to us through great contemporary art in 101 Dalmatians, a classic picture to last few the ages with thanks to a great deal of astounding work.



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