In the days of late, there has been one question that has been wandering in my mind. And I, being a movie lover all my life, have decided to share it: What were the first movies you ever saw? By that, I’m talking about films that run at least over an hour long, normally consist of a narrative, and have first seen theatrical release? Could it be something I saw on the big cinema screen, on home video, on the small TV screen, or in general? Let’s simply say the latter, starting from the very, very beginning, when I was the smallest of tykes and not long after I was born.
It could have been about dreaming of being somewhere over the rainbow, or flying in a spaceship in a galaxy far, far away, or perhaps wishing upon a star, or even dancing and singing in the rain. Those are all very good assumptions, but now it’s time to tell the truth: it was two animated films — one is about a litter of Dalmatian puppies abducted by the minions of a villain, then the parents must find them before she uses them for a diabolical fashion statement, while the other is about a bear and a panther having a difficult time trying to convince a boy to leave a jungle for human civilization.
Those movies are… drum rolls… One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book! Yes, it’s true, two of Walt Disney’s most popular, most successful, most widely watched films of all time were the very first movies I ever saw in my life, when I was about one or two. As a matter of fact, I watched both of these movies more than once the first time… actually, it was up to five or six times straight! Good heavens, I must have been hooked at such a young age. Why, I’m even amazed that I had good attention span for over an hour’s worth. Then again, I’m highly certain that these were pretty good places to start in my movie-watching lifetime.
Before we get carried away about anything concerning these two childhood classics, let me share some personal re-collection. I was presented VHS copies of both One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book by my grandparents — appropriately, they were each released on home video in 1991 and 1992, around the time I was born, and they had just been re-issued theatrically beforehand. Aside from watching children’s programs on PBS, these were my very first exposure to feature-length films, thanks to my parents and grandparents. I mean, for kids born the same time, even friends from school, this is rather normal. And like I said, I watched them both over and over again, to the point that I could easily have them memorized! That wasn’t all. One Halloween, I dressed up as a Dalmatian puppy, right down to my nose being painted black. Oh, and I had a Dalmatians blanket to top it off. Also, I used to wear just underwear quite often, much like Mowgli the man-cub.
Meanwhile, just today, I happened to watch both films in their entirety back-to-back for the first time since I was 10 or 11. I will make one thing clear beforehand, until today these films have never looked or sounded better. As for the films themselves, are they still any good today? Keep reading to find out what I have to say.
So here we move on to discussing these two Disney cartoon features. First of all, not only are these two of the studio’s best-known works since they first came out in the 1960s, but these were also two of the last animated films Walt Disney himself ever made in his life, shortly before his death in 1966. Here I will share background information about both movies, as well refreshing your memories on the plots, just in case.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians made its theatrical debut on 25th January, 1961, opening to widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike, as well as making a great deal of money at the box office. It is notable for being the first feature to use the Xerox process, an inexpensive animation technique employed to keep production costs down when transferring animators’ drawings to inking and painting traditional animation cels. This is largely because Disney’s previous animated work, Sleeping Beauty, failed miserably at the box office, which would be the end of the more lavish, richly detailed animation seen in films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Or else, if this next film didn’t exist, the animation department would be closed down for sure, even as Disney was concentrating more on amusement parks, live-action films, documentaries and TV outings. I will admit that when I watched this as a kid, I thought the use of Xerox was kind of “cheap” compared to the more elegant designs of the older films. But now that I have grown old enough to understand why it looks the way it did, I respect the filmmakers’ efforts immensely to this day. This process would continue to be used for virtually all the later cartoon features (and shorts) throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
The film was reissued for its 30th anniversary on 12th July, 1991, exactly ten days before I was born, and subsequently saw its first release on home video on 10th April, 1992, which happens to be ten days before my cousin was born. (Coincidence? I think not!) My VHS copy opened with a sneak peek at Aladdin, set to be released on Thanksgiving that year, while featuring brief clips from other films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Pinocchio (my all-around favorite Disney film), The Jungle Book (the other film I will mention later), The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the first-ever “Feature Presentation” bumper, the 1988 “Walt Disney Classics” logo, and the “Walt Disney Pictures” logo, and then the actual movie begins; afterwards, it closed with a double preview of The Great Mouse Detective and Beauty and the Beast, both of which issued on video later that year.
Based on the children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, this film tells the story of Dalmatians Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer) and their 15 puppies; the villainous character Cruella DeVil (Betty Lou Gerson) attempts to buy them from their owners, a composer and his wife. When the couple refuses to sell, Cruella and her minions steal the puppies. It is soon discovered that she has been rounding up Dalmatians in order to make them into a fur coat, but her plot is foiled by Pongo, Perdita, and their friends.
On the whole, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a likable, charming cartoon feature on a number of levels. It’s much, much more than just that family of 101 cute, cuddly, huggable Dalmatians (and they’re totally that, by the way.) It also benefits from skillful animation by 300 artists who worked on this film over the course of three years, an exciting, adventurous rescue story, comical slapstick from Cruella’s Three Stooges-like henchmen, Jasper and Horace, a jazzy, contemporary musical score, and inspired vocal performances from the cast. Dashing Australian film star Taylor makes a first-rate Pongo, the intelligent leading man (or dog, for that matter) and caring husband to his mate and devoted father to all of his pups; Bauer is the ideal cautious yet loving mother Perdita, with a soothing voice to match; and most enjoyably, Gerson’s hammy, flamboyant, deliciously evil Cruella is full of villainous life; so memorable and engaging that she earns her place among the most popular Disney villains. Actually, I must say that Cruella is what carries the film together — whether she’s hunting the dogs down, confronting their owners, or especially screaming at and insulting her dimwitted henchmen right in their faces, she practically steals the show.
If there’s another thing to be noted, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a low-key picture… by that, I’m saying it’s very, very low-key. For one thing, it’s set in a much more contemporary setting than previous Disney features, taking place in (then) modern London, as opposed to the usual fairy tale or classic literature-based outings before. For another, only three songs are featured — “Cruella DeVil”, “Kanine Krunchies” and “Dalmatian Plantation”, all composed by Mel Leven — and only the first song plays a big role in the film. Therefore this is a rare non-musical animation as opposed to the films of the Golden Era, which, in a way, is ironic, considering that one of the characters, is a songwriter. Finally, there’s the aforementioned Xerox process first used here, used to mitigate the skyrocketing costs of traditional animation, given the scratchy visuals. What you see in the film appears to be appears to be more drawn by pencil than painted — even the backgrounds which are indeed painted have this effect. Eventually, the quality of the images suffered in the 1980s, as new techniques we used to improve the art form. Yet, with all that being said, xerography continued to flourish after the success of this film, which leads me to move on to the other first film I saw…
The Jungle Book premiered on the big screen on 18th October, 1967, roughly thirty years after the release of Walt Disney’s first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and ten months after the filmmaker’s passing from lung cancer. Thus it is true that thus was the last animated film he ever produced. Upon its first theatrical issue, the film, like One Hundred and One Dalmatians before it, was a box-office hit, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year, and receiving positive acclaim from critics and audiences, undoubtedly because it was seen as a nostalgic farewell to the famed producer. Much of the praise also went to the jazzy, catchy soundtrack, which has to be one of Disney’s most ear-wormy, memorable soundtracks ever. And that’s really saying something. People just couldn’t help but hum “The Bare Necessities” for days on end, scat like Phil Harris and Louis Prima singing “I Wanna Be Like You”, or fall under the trance of “Trust in Me”. It is also a classic illustration of the true meaning of friendship, as demonstrated many times in the film. What could be a more effective way to end the Uncle Walt era?
This film was re-issued in theaters on 13th July, 1990, and was later released on home video for the first time on 3rd May, 1991. My VHS copy opened with a sneak peek at Beauty and the Beast, which was soon to be released later that autumn, and featured brief clips from films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book (the very movie about to be seen), Dumbo, Peter Pan, Bambi, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Oliver and Company and The Little Mermaid, a preview of The Rescuers Down Under, which was set for a home video release that summer, the “Walt Disney Classics” logo, and then the film would promptly begin.
Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s “Mowgli” stories from the book of the film’s own name (although loosely based on them), the film tells of Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), a young boy who has been raised by wolves since infancy in the Indian jungle. His safety is threatened, however, when the man-hating tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) returns. The wolves decide to send Mowgli to a human village for his protection, accompanied by the panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot). The two encounter many other animals during their journey, including the happy-go-lucky bear Baloo (Phil Harris), the dangerous snake Kaa (Sterling Holloway), and King Louie of the Apes (Louie Prima). Although Mowgli has resisted leaving the jungle, he changes his mind after meeting a young girl and departs to live among his own kind.
The Jungle Book is certainly a suitable closure to Walt Disney’s prolific film-making career, but there is far more to admire. First and foremost, it’s a lively neo-swing musical bursting with hummable songs composed by Terry Gilkyson and the Academy Award-winning Sherman Brothers (Robert and Richard), consisting of “Colonel Hathi’s March”, the enduring — and Oscar-nominated — “The Bare Necessities”, the toe-tapping “I Wanna Be Like You”, the hypnotic (and surprisingly calming) “Trust in Me”, “That’s What Friends Are For” and “My Own Home”. Each of these songs are clever and are sure to remain stuck in your head for days, even after a single viewing of this movie, and contribute remarkably well to the story. Vocal performances are another strong plus: Reitherman does a fine job as Mowgli, Cabot turns in a reasonably noble and wise Bagheera, trying desperately to return the man-cub to safety; Holloway gives a hilarious performance as Kaa, longing to eat Mowgli through means of hypnotizing him, but being comically thwarted each time. (Fun fact: All three actors have performed in “Winnie-the-Pooh” shorts at some point — Holloway was Pooh himself (his signature piece), Reitherman was the young boy Christopher Robin, and Cabot was the Narrator. In one scene, the characters in this film encounter — so if you think of it this way, Pooh is trying to eat Christopher Robin, and then tries to eat the Narrator. Make of that if you will!) Other memorable vocal performances include Prima’s scene-stealing King Louie, making you want to sing and dance along with him in “I Wanna Be Like You”, Sanders’ sophisticated yet venomous basso voice as Shere Khan is spot-on, and even bears an uncanny resemblance to Sanders himself. It should be noted that Sanders was the first Oscar-winning actor to have a voice role in a Disney movie. Finally, the true star of the movie is Harris as the kindhearted, laid-back bear Baloo, enjoying life to the max and never stressing over anything at all whatsoever. His rendition of “The Bare Necessities” is a real standard, certainly earning its place as a classic Disney song.
As far as the animation is concerned, I enjoy the jungle settings immensely, notably at the sight of waterfalls appearing sporadically during the film. Bagheera and Shere Khan are perhaps the most impressive, featuring graceful feline movements and careful balance. Of course, the Xerox process remains a strong presence. Humor is also a strong point, replete with slapstick, one-liners, and Harris’ many improvised lines. It also features one of the funniest pieces of animation I have ever seen — as Mowgli ends both confrontations with Kaa, he is able to use all of his strength to shove the snake’s coils from tree branches, causing Kaa to fall off the tree like a rope! Watch the scenes to be believed, seeing the snake fall off the tree is pure comedy gold! On a more personal note, as I grow older, I have come to sense how this was the Grand Finale of Disney’s long animation career, a fond tribute to one of the pioneers in the art form.
Having discussed the two films separately, let’s go ahead and discuss them together, shall we? So… One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book are both highly fun and entertaining films, whether viewed alone or in concert. These were produced when Disney started marketing their films as “family-friendly”, as the older films were meant to be just plain “normal” movies (i.e., primarily adult audiences in mind, but children enjoyed them just as well.) They were also two of the top three big films of the 1960s at the world box-office, just behind a certain musical.
Both films were directed by legendary Disney animator Wolfgang (“Woolie”) Reitherman, real-life father of Bruce, who was Mowgli; incidentally, he was notorious for repeating animation from other films. For instance, in one scene in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the dog family is watching TV; the pups excitedly wag their tails in one shot, which is soon followed by Perdita escorting them to bed. A similar shot is repeated in the opening of The Jungle Book, when baby Mowgli is being adopted by wolves; wolf pups wag their tails, and the their mother escorts them into their cave.
Meanwhile, two of the same voice actors worked on both features: J Pat O’Malley and Ben Wright. The former voiced Jasper and the Colonel in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (interestingly, in one scene late in the film, the two characters encounter each other in a barn); he was also Colonel Hathi the Elephant and one of the vultures Mowgli befriends in The Jungle Book. As for the latter, he voiced Roger Radcliffe in the first film and Rama, Mowgli’s wolf father, in the second film. (Side note: Many years later, Wright auditioned for — and was ultimately cast — as Grimsby in The Little Mermaid. At that time, none of the erstwhile Disney animators knew he had previously starred in two other animated features. He had to tell them.) Also, Tom Conway, who voiced the Quizmaster in the in-universe game show “What’s My Crime?” (based on “What’s My Line”) and the Collie in Dalmatians, and George Sanders, who voiced Shere Khan in Jungle Book, were brothers in real life. Admittedly their voices do sound markedly similar.
Furthermore, longtime Disney composer George Bruns wrote the scores for both films. I think that while his work is excellent, the composer himself is unfairly underrated, even by today’s standards. His inclusion of jazz in the films’ soundtracks is among the highest points of both films, catchy, smooth, even rousing at times. In One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the entire story is told with his music (including the opening title card, if you listen closely), inspired largely by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
Incidentally, he used a sad cue for descending strings in both features. It’s a hauntingly beautiful piece that reflects times of distress for main characters in the films. In Dalmatians, Roger and Anita are worried about what they would do with the kidnapped puppies, then Pongo and Perdita decide to use the Twilight Bark. It is used again in Jungle Book twice: when Baloo is worried about what he would say to Mowgli, and then Mowgli is trying to make Baloo wake up after the tiger attack.
However, these two films are not without flaws. They are not by any means perfect films — certainly not in the same league as true classics from the Disney Studios, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, and especially Pinocchio. While the use of Xerox is genius and innovative for their time, it does tend to look slightly dated when compared to the more carefully restored “Golden Age” and “Renaissance” outings. As for any concerns regarding One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cruella’s constant tongue-lashing towards others (“idiots”, “fools”, etc.) may be questionable for some families, as well as her habitual cigarette-smoking. Meanwhile, The Jungle Book shows no actual resemblance to Kipling’s original stories — maybe for the better, but not quite keeping in with the original’s spirit.
In spite of these flaws, the bad is overshadowed by the good in both One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. Storytelling, animation, and voice talent make the films still worth seeing today, whether you’re a kid or an adult; thus their popularity is very well-deserved. I will go as far as saying that revisiting my first movies is just like reuniting with your first childhood friends — no matter what time does to them, you still have fond memories of them and can return to them every once in a while.
In the end, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book both succeed mainly because they are good entertainment for just about anyone. Thus I feel privileged to have known them as the first movies I ever saw in my life, and are welcome entries in my childhood, as well as that of anybody of the younger generation.