Epic Disney Watchfest 9: 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas: An Extraordinarily Extraordinary Review

So, if you missed Epic Disney Watchfest 8, I explained that Brazle and I plowed through four movies last Monday. I reviewed the first two in that piece, Sword in the Stone and The Lion King. Now, I’ll turn my attention to 101 Dalmatians and Pocahontas.

101 Dalmatians

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101 Dalmatians in onederful.

101 Dalmatians is a very good animated film. Coming on the heels of Sleeping Beauty (which was unsuccessful at the box office, believe it or not), this was the last of the really classic Disney movies until the Disney Renaissance in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Of course, there are some other good movies between this and The Little Mermaid, but this work possesses a basic charm that was misplaced until Mermaid. Based on “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith, this movie tells the unlikely story of an evil woman named Cruella de Vil who dognaps ninety-nine dalmatian puppies in an effort to make a one-of-a-kind fur coat and the lengths to which one set of puppies’ parents (Pongo and Perdita) go to bring them all home. Yep, it’s an outlandish plot, but that kind of makes it awesome. The three things I like best about this movie are the story, animation and music.

Before going further, I want to address, as I always do, the historical landscape when this film was made. As mentioned above, Dalmatians was released after Sleeping Beauty, and since SB was a box office failure, Disney was considering closing the animation studio. In fact, Eric Larson (one of Disney’s Nine Old Men) recalled a conversation during the production of SB in which Disney said he didn’t think they could continue to produce animated features as they’d grown too expensive.

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Pongo and Perdita will stop at nothing to save their puppies.

So, the animation situation at Disney was dire. Walt didn’t want to close the doors on animation, for he’d built his studio on the strength of car-toons like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Still, he couldn’t imagine business con-tinuing in the same vein as before, as pro-duction costs had simply grown too high. His animation team had ballooned to over 500 members, and it was simply impossible to maintain such a large staff. Disney and his top people realized that the bulk of his animation team was employed to “ink” the films; that is, to trace the artists pencil drawings onto the celluloid film with ink. If this time-consuming process were only faster and simpler, perhaps the show could go on. Enter some dude named Ub Iwerks.

Ub Iwerks was a longtime friend of Disney’s. They worked together as artists and developed many of the earliest Disney characters. In fact, Iwerks was the creator of Mickey Mouse. Weird, huh? Anyway, by the 40’s and 50’s, Iwerks’ focus had turned primarily to technical efforts such as how to achieve various special effects on film. He also worked on a method of using the xeroxing process to transfer artwork to cels. It was this xeroxing process that would allow the Disney animation studio to stay afloat. Basically, xeroxing allowed for the artist’s pencil drawing to be transferred directly to celluloid without the expensive inking process. By the late 50’s, it was ready for full-time use. So, 101 Dalmatians became the first Disney film to benefit from xeroxing. The staff was reduced from over 500 to less than 100, production time was greatly reduced and the artist’s original intent was preserved.

Despite the benefits of xeroxing, there was a drawback. Since the process directly transferred the artist’s pencil drawings, it gave the animation a “scratchy” look (traditional inking smoothed out the sketches and provided a gorgeous finish), a look that’s very noticeable in Dalmatians. No matter what the drawbacks were, xeroxing kept the studio alive, so xeroxing was here to stay.

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Cruella wishes she could xerox dalmatian puppies.

Wow, all of that reads like a giant history lesson. Bet you weren’t expecting that! Or maybe you were. Hmm…….. At any rate, 101 Dalmatians fea-tured one of the biggest techno-logical advances animation would see until the mid-to-late 80’s and 90’s when CGI and CAPS came into the picture. Thought you should know.

Okay, so regarding the movie: it’s enjoyable for just about any audience. There is a real plot (unlike Sword in the Stone) and the characters are very memorable. Cruella de Vil is especially delicious as the villain, and her name makes for a great bluesy jazz song. As a piano player, I like that the fact that Roger Radcliffe is a piano-playing songwriter. I also enjoyed the imaginative dog communication chain that allows Pongo and Perdita to find the pups. In all, I liked the movie. It’s harmless for kids, and it’s interesting for adults. 7.4/10.

Pocahontas

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Pocahontas is a beautiful film.

This film is gorgeous. It’s not as good as any of Disney’s three previous animated features, but it is every bit as beautiful. I found myself rewinding several times just to get another look at some of the lavish artwork; in my opinion, it’s worth seeing just for the visuals. Beyond that, Pocahontas also has a touching story and some of the best songs of Disney’s entire catalog. In all, I would give this film a 7.9/10.

More on the artwork: In my review of The Lion King, I noted that most of Disney’s top art and animation talent chose to work on Pocahontas rather than The Lion King, as most of them believed the former to be the stronger, more prestigious movie. Though The Lion King is undeniably better in just about every way, Pocahontas rivals it in graphics. Like I said in my opening paragraph, the artwork in Pocahontas is unbelievable. Utilizing CAPS to the fullest, the art and animation staff was able to create a lush backdrop of the historical northeast.

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Pocahontas and Richard Kimble can survive dives of any height.

In some shots, we are treated to soaring panoramas from the tops of cliffs. In others, we are treated to a thick, lush slice of what the untouched Virginian forest might’ve looked like on the inside. Still, in other shots, we are treated to Pocahontas diving down tall waterfalls and skimming along the river’s surface below, colors vibrant as the eye barely has time to take everything in. It’s truly an aesthetically marvelous achievement. I recently watched Sleeping Beauty (look for the review in the next couple of days) and I noticed there is a similarity between that film and Pocahontas. I think it is maybe because of the fact that much of the depicted world in both films is forest. Maybe the forests look similar? At any rate, the two movies look very similar to me.

On the story: This is one of the few Disney movies based on real events. In this case, we are treated to a fictionalized “Romeo and Juliet” account of the first meeting between real-life lovers, Pocahontas and John Smith. Smith is a part of the Virginia Company, and Pocahontas is a member of the Powhatan Tribe, and since the Virginia Company is coming to settle in the New World while the Powhatan Tribe is already living in the New World, their purposes are naturally at odds. But, they quickly fall in love, and as their feelings for each other grow, relations between the immigrants and natives grow more and more tenuous, making the two lovers’ connection even more perilous. Sounds pretty good, right?

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Radcliffe is the villain.

While it is an intriguing love story, I find the plot to be hampered by some poor character develop-ment. I especially found the villain to be weak. Governor Radcliffe is portrayed as an evil, gold-grubbing beast of a man who is bent on destroying the natives in his quest for gold. Though he shows moments of introspection and reflection (as in “Mine, Mine, Mine”), he is just not terribly well-written. Radcliffe doesn’t ruin the film, but I would say he brings the rating down 10% easily. On the other side of poor character development is Thomas, voiced by Christian Bale. His development is poor in that he isn’t used enough. I mean, every scene he’s in is better, so I would’ve liked to see his role expanded. All in all, though, the basics of the story work well enough to overcome the character flaws.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I took a break just a moment ago to read some trivia on this film, and I stumbled across an entry on the Pocahontas imdb.com page that states “The animation style is of a more flat and geometric appearance, first employed by the studio back in 1959 on Sleeping Beauty  and in 1961 on 101 Dalmatians . It would be a style that was re-used on Hercules (1997) and, to a lesser extent, on Mulan (1998).” I promise I made the comparison between Pocahontas and Sleeping Beauty before I read that. I can totally see the “flat and geometric” thing; when I mentioned the trees earlier, I didn’t realize it was the style of the trees that was similar. Cool. Okay, I’m done patting myself on the back. Back to the review.

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“Colors of the Wind” give direction to Pocahontas.

On the music: Alan Menken Alan Menken Alan Menken Alan Menken ALAN MENKEN EVERYONE!! Holy cow, I just looked this up; from The Little Mermaid in 1989 until Pocahontas in 1995, Alan Menken won double Oscars for four of the six films he scored. That’s insane. In the same span, he also cranked out the galactically underrated Newsies soundtrack, and when he couldn’t score The Lion King, he recommended Elton John, which was genius. In short – this man was on FIRE! In Pocahontas, Menken turned out “Colors of the Wind” which is absolutely excellent. In fact, “CotW” was the first song written for the picture, and it was so good that the production design was based on it. How crazy is that? Other good songs include “Savages”, “Listen With Your Heart” and “Just Around the Riverbend”.

In closing, I highly recommend Pocahontas. It has stunning aesthetics, a good story and wonderful music. It is a movie with something for everyone. I give it a 7.9/10.

Next Up: Sleeping Beauty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame 

Please comment, and feel free to email me your thoughts at grant@grantstevensgroup.com.

Grant Stevens is glad he intended to write reviews of less than 800 words total and instead he’s writing twice that amount. Surely this excess of words will earn him several literary awards and whatnot. He loves basketball and soccer, and he also loves going on walks around his neighborhood. He also does lots of music stuff. Check it out at www.grantstevensgroup.com.

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