Monday, October 14, 2019

Walt Disney, part XXI: Fur is dead


Even if you're not thrilled about all the changes the movie represents, it's still pretty hard not to like what the movie is.  (Though not impossible, and, boy, does it have some unexamined problems with its drama.)

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi
Written by Bill Peet (based on the novel by Dodie Smith)

Spoiler alert: I mean, what do you think? she flays the puppies and looks good doing it?

1959's Sleeping Beauty was always intended to be a monument to the Walt Disney Studio's dedication to their art, but it was, in the end, also a gravestone.  The film that had cost a hyperbolically enormous amount of money to produce had generated a merely large amount of money in return, and this was no consolation to Walt, whose burgeoning indifference toward the increasingly-financially-marginal animation arm of his company can be easily summed-up by his response to 1961's smaller, cheaper, faster One Hundred and One Dalmatians: he found it abominable to look at, which nonetheless posed no apparent obstacle to every Disney film made for the next thirty years to look like it, except, in most cases, significantly worse.

It was the first feature—following on from the 1960 short, "Goliath II" (and the thorn sequence of Sleeping Beauty, though you wouldn't notice it there)—to abandon the traditional mode of ink-and-paint cel animation that had been pioneered by Disney in favor of a new technology developed in the late 1950s by Disney's special processes guru Ub Iwerks, expressly as a response to the cost-consciousness Walt had finally discovered late in his life, after some three decades during which he had seldom demonstrated the ability to even do arithmetic.  That technology was xerography, from the Greek for "dry writing," subsequently offering its name to the company that had invented it.  In the wider world, Xerox's innovation (applied to paper) would lead to a revolution in business, permitting many millions of TPS reports to be filed.  But Iwerks saw the potential to apply the same basic process to celluloid, obviating the need for an army of inkers to serve as an intermediary between the animator and the animation itself.  Walt thought this part of it was pretty cool, as he had long since developed a distaste for having employees.  He fired his mostly-female inking staff almost the instant the technology was ready to go, then sneered at the film in which his decision had resulted.  Good ol' Walt.

Because it was cheaper, it henceforth became the standard for American cel animation: when Don Bluth, who'd cut his teeth on Sleeping Beauty, arose to challenge Disney's decadence in the early 1980s, he still had nowhere to turn to but the xerographic process—if not the carelessness it represented—which, taken together, had been the biggest reason why Disney had fallen so far in the first place.  That's not necessarily apparent, ab initio, from One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Yet the things Walt disliked about it are things that it would take years to refine out (and Disney only totally managed to do so just as they were set to abandon it!).  The big one was that, as Kevin Smith once observed, inkers weren't fucking tracers: they were allied craftspeople with actual skillsets whose work was the reason that Disney animation, even when what it was representing was ugly or dull or stupid, still bore a lovely delicacy, and a certain irreplaceable elegance.  Xerox machines were fucking tracers, and brutish ones, reproducing pencil lines as thick black slashes upon the celluloid.  Moreover, the Xerox machines of 1961 weren't all that good at recreating curves, demanding an angular style, something accomplished for Sleeping Beauty for the sake of art, rather than necessity, and which the animators hadn't been entirely comfortable with even when they'd had all the time and resources in the world to do it right.  The machines also reproduced debris, construction marks, and incomplete erasures, because of course they did, and it was vanishingly few of Disney's animated fantasies which would benefit even slightly from the overt signs of their creation being left on the screen.  (Though, miraculously, there would be one: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.)

There weren't very many more that benefited from the scratchy, sketchy, thickly-outlined look of the character animation itself.  Yet perhaps One Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of them.  A major reason why is implied right there in the title: it's a story that, essentially, is about how neat black spots look on white backgrounds, something Dalmatians emphasizes with its rather cool graphic opening credits sequence (another Disney first), and though the film, as all Disney feature animation had been previously, was photographed in Technicolor, it's surely one of the most aggressively monochrome things the studio ever produced once past "Flowers and Trees," with most every scene either taking place against a backdrop of a beige-and-gray city or a snow-covered countryside.  (And of course we eventually wind up with so many dalmatians—it becomes clear that nobody was actually counting, and they erred on the side of "shitload"—that dalmatians are the backdrop.) One can imagine that the inking techniques of Lady and the Tramp, as applied to Dalmatians—with characters' outlines being only a slightly-different shade of paint from their fur—would've resulted in a film that was terrifically striking but also routinely all-but-unreadable.  It helps, too, that like only Dumbo before it amongst the full features, it takes on a contemporary setting.  (And, also like Dumbo, Dalmatians can be characterized as one the studio's "recovery" films, where they retreated from a financial loss.)  Yet unlike Dumbo, there is hardly the slightest sense of the fairy-tale to it.  Instead there is the freewheeling, just-a-cartoon approach that would become ever more salient and, it's true, usually more unlikeable, all throughout Disney's newly-begun Bronze Age.  Whereas the instant they went back to period-piece fantasies—which happened with the very next film—xerography looked all wrong once again.

Yet, remarkably, the modernist tenor of the design actually does work rather well here, despite feeling so hasty and dashed-off; perhaps even because it feels hasty and dashed-off, since it's always in uniformly intelligent ways.  In huge part, this is thanks to the efforts of production designer Ken Anderson.  (This film, like the Silver Age movies, had a color stylist, Walter Peregoy; but this time the credited production designer was responsible for the actual production design.)  In fact, for all that one may grouse about xerography from the distance of almost six decades, and bemoan how shitty it made Disney animation, it was certainly not universally resisted at the company itself, and several of the animators (Milt Kahl especially) were excited that, for the first time, their drawings would be reproduced in the finished product.  For his part, Anderson saw great graphic possibility in the technology, and by most accounts he's the one who pushed for xerography for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which had not, despite all appearances, actually been conceived as a testbed for the technology.  Rather, Walt had really enjoyed Dodie Smith's 1956 novel, and assigned Bill Peet to work out a streamlined adaptation, which Peet did entirely on his own (which was nearly as revolutionary as xerography, given that this represents the first Disney film ever where listing the "writers" has not been significantly more trouble than it was worth).  But then, of course, Walt stopped giving a damn, and when Anderson proposed using the new technology for Peet's story, Walt dismissively permitted Anderson to do whatever he pleased.  Anderson has since claimed that Walt forgave him two weeks before the latter's death, which he apparently did telepathically, since all Walt actually said to him was just something along the lines of "good morning," though in fairness this was much more polite than any of the things he said to Anderson in the immediate aftermath of Dalmatians' production.

Anderson's modest stroke of genius was to unify foreground and background with a loose, half-rendered style of his and Peregoy's own, using drawn backgrounds that were themselves xeroxed, then painted (often with a certain, presumably-intentional sloppiness that doesn't accord with the lines!).  As a result, Dalmatians boasts, perhaps, the least dissonance between animation and backdrop of any Disney feature ever made until the advent of CGI, bearing a specific and highly-appealing middlebrow quality that isn't really "sophistication," but nevertheless feels like a gesture toward it—a playful 60s-ness that Anderson attributes to the influence of British cartoonist Ronald Searle, and which strikes me as sort of a New Yorker cartoon in motion (even if it's set in London).  The downside is that the richness of Disney's painted backdrops was one of Disney animation's biggest selling points, and there's only occasionally significant actual (as opposed to stylistic) integration between foreground and background, and when it happens, it calls attention to itself in not-always-successful ways.  Anderson may have sought a union of background and foreground in a looser style, but he didn't tell the effects animators, who blindly practiced their art as they always had.  (Though Dalmatians is a first in another sad way: it was the first Disney feature to be made without the presence of champion effects animator Joshua Meador; he died in 1965.)  And so for every splendidly-distorted silhouette glimpsed through a frosted glass window, there's a scene of the villain's noxious green cigarette smoke or a rotoscoped car or a hillside of disturbed "snow," all of which seem to be floating in a netherworld above the film, rather than being part of it.

Otherwise, the style fits quite well with the (surprisingly-dark) little adventure story being told, which, even so, begins in another register entirely, with a whole extended prologue explaining where little doggies come from.  In London, you see, there is our narrator, Pongo (Rod Taylor), who lives alone with his pet, Roger (Ben Wright), and Dalmatians leans on this cute linguistic reversal just enough that it doesn't get tiresome, which I somewhat expect it does in the novel.  Roger's a struggling semi-bohemian songwriter and messy bachelor, and Pongo would, he tells us, like to change this.  He thus spends his lazy afternoons looking out at the street and evaluating every human female who comes by for their mating potential, though the disconnect between Pongo's words (he's trying to do Roger a favor) and the visual storytelling (he almost exclusively cares about the female dogs), is charmingly funny, as is the gentle visual gag of every human "pet" he sees being a caricature of their canine owner.  Finally, he spies Perdita (Cate Bauer) and her human Anita (Lisa Davis) and contrives, in his doggy way, a meet-cute that nets Roger the woman, and, more importantly, nets Pongo the dog.  And I don't think Dalmatians ever, ever, ever gets better than this sweet, fanciful look at romance in the big city, even though if you cut it, it would not even slightly reduce your understanding of the plot.

The plot kicks in when Perdita gives birth to an enormous litter of fifteen puppies (Pongo's intoxicated reaction to the absurd potency of his seed is both funny and kind of gross), and Anita's schoolchum, a certain Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), arrives to announce that she'll be happy to take the pups off their hands.  When Anita and Roger refuse in no uncertain terms, Cruella tasks her low-class henchmen to steal them anyway, for Cruella—of course—has long nursed a yen for a new and fashionable fur coat, made from the sewn-together hides of 99 dalmatian puppies.  (And it's an open question, albeit one that probably has an answer I could research, just how much ground the animal rights movement must've gained from this extremely popular film.  I imagine even more than it had from Bambi.)  While Roger and Anita remain very useless, Perdita and Pongo set out on a dangerous journey across the English countryside, to Cruella's Hell Hall (in case "De Vil" was too subtle), to effect a rescue with the help of various allies they find along the way.

It's a pretty simple plot, but a more direct one than the Silver Age typically afforded, though Dalmatians is still prone to padding.  Sometimes this is in ways that add delightful texture (the pop culture satire of crappy dog-based adventure shows and the people who like them—that is, folks with the intelligence of baby dogs—as well as early reality television and the people who like that—drunken criminals—is quite neat).  Sometimes it's just excruciatingly drawn-out, like the fun idea of the "twilight bark," a relay system of dogs passing messages across Greater London, that winds up driven into the ground in the execution, in part because it's a very simple concept that the film isn't sure our dumb asses get, in part because it uses this opportunity to cameo some of the more obnoxious Lady and the Tramp characters, and in part because dogs barking is annoying, something the film is perversely happy to acknowledge.

On the plus side, Dalmatians is obliged to abandon Lady and the Tramp's "ethnic stereotypes sure do exist!" brand of humor, and Pongo and Perdita don't, like, talk in Croatian accents or anything.

The biggest problem, however—and I hate to say it because she obviously inspires great happiness in so many—is that Dalmatians has some truly sub-par villainy.  Cruella represents a continuation of a line of Disney villains I have a hard time not rejecting categorically: the "comically" inept shrieker with even more inept and bumbling goons.  She was prefigured by the Queen of Hearts and by Hook, though Cruella is still better than either, not least because her plan is simply so fucking vile, and that earns a lot of points back even if it's 1)a plan that could be trivially accomplished by anyone of means, without robbery or attempted murder and 2)incompetently handled on its merits.  But Dalmatians scarcely misses a single opportunity to undermine its villains—the strategy Pongo employs to trick Cruella's minions almost seems clever until the villains have to emphasize, in dialogue, how stupid they'd have to be to fall for it—and Cruella doesn't quite cohere as truly dangerous until her final moments of fiery madness and, as they say, "crazy woman driv[ing]," which rather obviously ought to have ended in fiery Disney offscreen death, but instead retrenches into Gerson shouting "imbeciles!" in a London, England, accent by way of Birmingham, Alabama.  (It's notable how much more credible the threat of the ice storm Pongo and Perdita must navigate is, perhaps because the ice storm doesn't have lines.) On the plus side, Cruella is an awfully well-animated demon, as good a piece of anti-fur propaganda ever made, a collection of broad theatrical motions undertaken by a stick-thin corpse inside a mantle of animal skin; Marc Davis animated all or almost all her scenes personally, and plainly quite despised her.  I'm not ecstatic about every element of her design: the bifurcated black-and-white hair (a direct translation from the novel) never stops being slightly distracting, and I feel like Cruella, explicitly a contemporary of the young, fetching Anita, and whose main trait is a vanity about her appearance, should probably be in some manner attractive, or at least not look so obviously desiccated and gross.  But overall, and for the film's purpose of equating Cruella with Death, she's an excellent design: there's something about the combination of black dress, white fur, and red lining that's perfect, subliminally suggesting pelts newly-removed from their corpses—and still dripping blood.

As for everyone else, Dalmatians does a solid job, too: I rather like Roger and Anita's designs, and Perdita and Pongo, while they don't quite move on the same rarefied technical level as Lady or her Tramp, and certainly don't have the same finery of line, aren't subject to the same romantic overdetermination in their designs, which I find makes them more convincing and likeable as dogs, despite not being as well-animated.

Ultimately, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is one of the good ones.  I'd have strongly preferred that the xerographic experiment had been used only when the aesthetic it imposed actually served as a strength instead of a weakness—but it is nice that Disney got it more-or-less right on their first try.

Score: 6/10

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