Okay, this is something of a new experience for me. So far, I only dealt with movies based on books I read at one point. I’m not saying that 101 Dalmatians is the first case were the movie was my first exposure to the story, but it is the first movie for which I read the book just for this article series. Which is in the case of 101 Dalmatians kind of a problem, because I don’t look at it from the perspective of a child, the actual target group, but from the perspective of an adult. I tried my best not to be overly critical but – well, let’s just dive into this.
1. The Characters
To say it upfront: I have a huge problem with the characters in the book. Mainly, with the way Missus Pongo and Perdita are portrayed. That’s right, Disney merged two character into one, Perdita in the book is not Pongo’s wife, she is taken into the family to help nursing the pups since 15 are simply too much for one mother. What angers me about both characters in the book, but especially about Missus Pongo, is how stupid they both are. In the book it’s constantly pointed out that Pongo is unusual intelligent for a dog. And he constantly talks down to her and acts amused when she says something naïve. This is bad enough, but on their journey (during which is constantly pointed out that females are weaker) they meet other (male) dogs, and on more than one occasion, Pongo and another dog act indulgent about Missus Pongo. It’s aggravating, and honestly destroyed any enjoyment I might have had reading this book.
The characters in the Disney version are not necessarily layered, but they are more balanced overall. It certainly helps that Disney slimmed down the cast considerably. Two Nanny’s become one, the husband and the cat of Cruella de Vil are omitted, and Lucky become the puppy who nearly did during birth instead of two separate characters. The idea that pets become similar to their owners (or the other way around) is picked up, making Pongo and Perdita mirrors of their human counterparts. And honestly, I quite like Roger and Anita. While it’s never explicitly stated, I always got the impression that Anita is a working woman with her own income, the mind in the relationship, while Roger the musician is the heart and the humour. That is a clever change, too, by the way, in the book they are rich from the get go, in the movie the little side-story with Rogers successful hit not only allows Disney to add some music into the mix in a believable fashion, it also gives the human characters their own little arc.
The best part of the movie is naturally Cruella de Vil. The design is obviously based on the book, which is painfully obvious about Cruella being bad. Even that her name sounds like "devil" is mentioned at one point. I honestly don't like it when things like this are spelled out so obviously. What Disney added to the design is mostly the frail body under the big coat. It's an interesting contrast, which somehow makes Cruella look even more dangerous. The movie is also more subtly about her devilish nature, but when it comes out, it comes out with full force. Ironically the Disney take is less cartoony, because their version doesn't mention strange stuff like her tasting like pepper.
One has to give it to the book: It is obviously written by someone who loves dogs dearly. Their habits are described more realistic than the way the humans act. Again and again it is mentioned that dogs see their humans as their pets. The downside is that there is much care put in the portrayal of the humans. I prefer the more realistic way Disney approached the human characters, and that Pongo and Perdita are equals in every sense of the word, working together to get their puppies back.
2. The Plot
I was actually very surprised how much in the movie is based on the book. This might be the most faithful adaptation Disney has ever done. The basic story, the show “What is my crime”, the way the dogs communicate with each other, all that is actually straight from the source. What Disney did was exaggerating at the right places (for example the dogs don’t wake up all the humans when they send the message in the book), tighten the story a little bit (by making the actual travel shorter) and adding a little bit more suspense, more scenes in which the dogs are nearly caught.
The scene when they sneak into the truck is slightly adjusted, and done really perfectly in the Disney version. First the suspenseful time until they are all in the relative safety of the truck, than the dangerous rise with Cruella right behind them, it just works. It is, though, a little bit of a dissatisfying ending for a villain. In the book, the dogs destroy all the furs in Cruella’s house before they go home, hence destroying the business of her husband (who is a fur maker) and forcing them to flee the country to get away from their debt. The Disney version more or less forgets about the villain as soon as her car is destroyed.
But all in all, there isn’t much to say about the Plot, neither in the book nor in the movie. It’s a cute little story, one Disney tells with the necessary seriously. But it’s not exactly a big epic. It isn’t supposed to be.
3. The Conclusion
101 Dalmatians is a surprisingly faithful take on the story. It’s not one of the big Disney movies though in my eyes, because it is, like the book, mostly aimed at kids. It’s entertaining but doesn’t even try to be more than that. I like the movie nevertheless. It doesn’t talk down to its intended audience, it’s funny and suspenseful, and just a good pick for a snowy night. Or if you really, really like dogs.