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Taste Test: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) vs. Ratatouille (2007)

July 9th, 2009 · 10 Comments

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961, poster Ratatouille, 2007, poster

By Joe Valdez

What the *&#! Are They About?

In a bachelor’s pad near Regent’s Park in London, a Dalmatian named Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) attempts to break the monotony of a spring’s day by introducing his “pet” — solitary song man Roger Radcliffe (voiced by Ben Wright) — to a suitable mate. Selecting an attractive woman holding the leash of a female Dalmatian named Perdita (voiced by Cate Bauer), Pongo drags Roger through the park and forces the humans to collide into each other. Wedding bells soon chime for Roger and Anita (voiced by Lisa Davis) while Perdita gives birth to 15 Dalmatian pups.

The litter attracts the attention of Anita’s chain smoking, fashion disaster schoolmate Cruella de Vil (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson). Roger summons the nerve to turn Cruella’s offer for the litter down, but later, two thieves dognap the pups. When Scotland Yard is unable to link Cruella to the crime, Pongo takes matters into his own paws, issuing a “twilight bark” for help. Word reaches the countryside, where an old sheepdog and tabby cat trace not just 15, but 99 Dalmatian pups to de Vil’s crumbling mansion Hell Hall, where she intends to turn the pups into a fur coat.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

When his highly developed nose earns him a job as poison checker, a rat named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) finds his pleas that their kind do little more than steal garbage falling on the deaf ears of his father (voiced by Brian Dennehy). Remy’s tastes lead him into a farmhouse kitchen, where TV introduces him to the philosophy of renowned chef August Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett) that “anyone can cook.” Remy’s expedition to the kitchen for saffron with his trash compactor brother Emile (voiced by Peter Sohn) results in the clan being driven from the attic. During the exodus, Remy is sent floating down a storm drain atop Gusteau’s book.

Realizing he’s in Paris, Remy arrives at the kitchen of his late mentor’s famous restaurant, now run by the temperamental Skinner (voiced by Ian Holm). Witnessing the disastrous attempts of bus boy Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano) at making soup, Remy intervenes. The soup is such a hit with customers that Skinner demands Linguini create his wonder again, under the watchful eye of chef Colette (voiced by Janeane Garafalo). Remy pursues his culinary dreams through Linguini, helping the boy win over food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole), as well as win Colette’s affection. Reunited with his family, Remy is unsure which world he belongs to.

Ratatouille, 2007

Playwright Dodie Smith and her taste for black & white led to her future husband presenting her with a Dalmatian in 1934. She named the dog Pongo. One Hundred and One Dalmatians had its genesis in a comment one of Smith’s friends made about Pongo, recalling that as a puppy, his fur would have made a nice coat. Envisioned as a children’s play at one point, a novel was published to great success in 1956. A scene in which the puppies disguise themselves as Labradors by rolling in soot was enough to compel producer Walt Disney to option the film rights in late 1957.

Disney assured Smith that her story would go into production following the lavish Sleeping Beauty. To pen an adaptation, Disney turned to Bill Peet. Before he would author children’s books like Chester the Worldy Pig, Peet began his career with Disney in 1937 as an “in betweener” assisting with final drawings. Peet supplied character sketches for Dumbo and soon became a senior writer-illustrator with the studio, co-authoring and storyboarding Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Ben and Me. Disney’s faith in Peet was so strong that for the first time in studio history, one person was entrusted with adapting and storyboarding an animated feature.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

One Hundred and One Dalmatians is credited with being the most contemporary animated feature Disney had yet produced. I seem to remember Lady and the Tramp (1955) being quite modern too, but its creative departure from the fantasy musicals that Disney had banked on in the past was quite a novel approach. The writing contains nice doses of wit early on — with human behavior being commented on by a pet — and has mystery and suspense in the last half hour. None of these engines feels particularly sustained, but I did enjoy the film’s sly mockery of television, via the shows and ads (Kanine Krunchies) the Dalmatians are obsessed with.

Animator Jan Pinkava was standing in the kitchen in early 2000 with his wife when he had an idea for a movie: a rat who wants to become a chef. Pinkava had written and directed Geri’s Game — the Academy Award winning Best Animated Short Film of 1997 — for Pixar Animation Studios. Pinkava shared his story outline with Pixar story artist Jim Capobianco and the pair started on a screenplay. When Pinkava made his pitch to Pixar in March 2003, chief creative officer John Lasseter loved the fish-out-of-water concept. Pinkava continued to hone the script and by the summer of 2004, turned to writers Emily Cook & Kathy Greenberg for help.

Ratatouille, 2007

To co-direct the untitled project, Pixar brought in Bob Peterson — who’d rewritten Finding Nemo — to whip the story into shape and allow Pinkava to focus on character and set design. Peterson assembled a story reel, but when it was presented to Pixar in late 2004, the studio saw a brilliant idea that was struggling to be realized as a feature length film. A second story reel presented in late spring 2005 was deemed rich in atmosphere, but still flat in story. Animator Brad Bird — whose film The Incredibles was playing like gangbusters for Pixar — had spent two weeks doctoring the screenplay when in June 2005, Pixar asked Bird to take over as director.

The outrageousness of the concept and challenge of finding a way to make audiences care about a rat both appealed to Bird. Rewriting the script, he kept most of Pinkava’s characters, killing off Gasteau and making him a spirit guide of sorts. Instead of an entire family of rats, Bird simplified things by giving Remy a father and brother only. He was taken by a minor character named Colette and expanded her part, making her an ally to Remy and Linguini. The result is an enormously sophisticated situation comedy. Not lacking in his yen for eye-popping action sequences, Bird is supremely acute when it comes to the fabric of relationships.

Ratatouille, 2007

Writing edge: Ratatouille

Celebrity voices have been increasingly relied on in animated features, whether the star brings anything worthwhile to the character or not. One Hundred and One Dalmatians belongs to an era when animated characters were brought to life with great voices instead of bankable ones. Rod Taylor brings a dash of sophistication to the voice of Pongo, while it’s impossible to imagine the need for Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to voice Cruella de Vil when Betty Lou Gerson is intensely hilarious in the part. Disney veterans J. Pat O’Malley, Martha Wentworth and Tom Conway also lent their vocal talent to the film.

Characters don’t come to life in animated films with the ingenuity and craft of animators; Walt Disney had built the best animation unit in the world. Frank Thomas designed the character of Pongo and was responsible for a beautiful scene where the dog reacts to Roger bringing a stillborn pup back to life. Ollie Johnston was tasked with the character of Perdita. Marc Davis — whose drafting table had been the birthplace of Bambi and Tinkerbell — designed Cruella de Vil, one of the most memorable animated characters of all time. Thomas, Johnston and Davis were all part of the “Nine Old Men”, the core animation team responsible for building Disney.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

With Pixar’s preference for developing characters both two dimensionally and three dimensionally, designers Jason Deamer, Dan Lee and Carter Goodrich sketched character drawings, which were molded into clay by sculptors Jerome Ranft and Greg Dykstra. The concern that audiences might find rats gross had been dealt with by designing them to walk on two legs. When Brad Bird came on board, he used Bambi and Lady and the Tramp as touchstones, insisting that animals act like animals and not humans. A year spent observing rats in terrariums at Pixar helped animators capture muscle movements and anatomy much more realistically.

Bird arrived on Patton Oswalt to voice Remy after switching on his car radio and hearing the comedian’s bit on Black Angus Steakhouses; to Bird, Oswalt seemed to be this big personality coming from a smaller body. Janeane Garafalo’s attitude and acting chops perfectly fit for the voice of French chef Colette. The verbal dexterity and wit of both performers goes a long way to making Ratatouille so entertaining. Peter O’Toole — rarely if ever employed as just a voice actor — is tremendous as the insufferable food critic. Ian Holm’s French accent is nearly unrecognizable as Skinner, as is John Ratzenberger, whose voice appears as the head waiter.

Ratatouille, 2007

Casting edge: Even

Production value

Sleeping Beauty
had cost a fortune for Disney and underperformed at the box office in 1959. To avoid shuttering his animation division, Disney was looking for a way to cut costs. Ub Iwerks — animator, technical innovator and Disney’s business partner from the earliest days of the studio — suggested that office copiers from Xerox that were appearing on the market might be used to transfer an image onto an animation cel. The Xerox lens could take a picture of a pencil drawing and transfer it onto a plate, which could be dipped in toner and transferred onto a clear cel. This would eliminate the time consuming and costly need for an ink department.

Animators were thrilled that their work would no longer pass through ink tracers and responded with inspired character work; Cruella de Vil’s entrance is one of the grandest ever for a Disney character. Art director Ken Anderson brought a particular look to One Hundred and One Dalmatians: angular, abstract, modern. Layout stylist Ernie Nordli went over some of Anderson’s backgrounds and softened them up a bit, but the results were a radical departure from the lushness of Lady and the Tramp or Sleeping Beauty. Painter Walt Peregoy used color styling to give a mere impression of shapes like doors or furniture.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

Disney stalwarts Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi directed One Hundred and One Dalmatians with each supervising the completion of individual sequences. Xerox color had yet to be invented, but with so many of the characters designed to be black & white anyway, the process suggested by Ub Iwerks turned out sublimely well suited to the material. The stark, black lined style beautifully signals that we’ve arrived in a bold new age of animation, with the opening credits sequence in particular bouncing with a jazzy, energetic feel. I’m not a big fan of abstract art, but got a kick out of the Picasso influences that run throughout the film.

Director of photography Sharon Calahan and production designer Harley Jessup were both retained when Pixar brought on Brad Bird to rewrite and direct Ratatouille. Both were major forces in dictating the look and feel of the film. Calahan suggested that the rat world would feel cool and the human world warm. She studied food photography — both good and bad — and arrived on a slightly warm illumination to not only make the dishes look appetizing, but to make the human world feel inviting to Remy. Subdued colors among the characters and props helped highlight the richness of the food, which ends up coming off like a character.

Ratatouille, 2007

Ignoring animated films like The Aristocats that had previously used Paris as a locale, art director Harley Jessup referenced live action movies from the 1950s like An American In Paris, searching for an idealized look of the City of Lights. But he also drew heavily on Parisian geography to design the sets. Gusteau’s is adjacent to the Place Dauphine. Linguini’s flat was located in Montmartre. The location of the Eiffel Tower through windowpanes was accurate to wherever the scene was supposed to take place. Rooting the look of Ratatouille in Paris resulted in a muted color palette that stands apart from the toybox colors of previous Pixar films.

One aspect you can always bank on with Brad Bird is how imaginative and exciting the action sequences are going to be. This was evident in the “Family Dog” segment of Amazing Stories, on to The Iron Giant and is true of his two animated features for Pixar. This is a ceaselessly entertaining movie, but in addition to the madcap chases are wonderful moments observing human behavior. I particularly like the French lovers Remy spies while moving through the walls; one moment the femme is shooting at her lover and the next, they’re embraced in a kiss. That’s Brad Bird and the type of social observation you don’t see in other children’s films.

Ratatouille, 2007

Production value edge: Ratatouille

Most of Disney’s animated films up to this point had stopped to break into song and dance, but One Hundred and One Dalmatians broke with form by integrating its songs into the story. Mel Leven wrote all of these. “Cruella de Vil” ranks right up there with “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”. I had it stuck in my head for days and was not worse off for the experience. Leven also wrote the tune “Dalmatian Plantation” that closes the film and the hilarious “Kanine Krunchies” jingle. George Bruns composed the score and instead of a classic orchestral approach, his upbeat, jazzy compositions bring a freewheeling, modern vibe to the picture.

After working together on The Incredibles, Brad Bird commissioned Michael Giacchino to compose the musical score for Ratatouille. The collaboration resulted in Giacchino’s first nomination for an Academy Award. The composer brought in French singer Camille to lend her remarkable vocals to the song “Le Festin”, which can be heard twice during the film to magical effect: the montage when Linguini is ceded ownership of Gasteau’s and again before the end credits. Giacchino’s musical ingenuity and range is evident during Skinner’s chase of Remy through across the Seine and is a delight throughout the picture.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

Music edge: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

Cultural impact

Arriving in theaters January 1961, audiences lapped up the contemporary approach of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It became the #1 grossing movie of the year and endures as one of the most popular animated features in the Disney library. Each re-release — in January 1969, June 1979, December 1985 and July 1991 — outgrossed the previous, totaling $144.8 million in the U.S. and $71 million overseas. It inspired two live action versions starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil: 101 Dalmatians (1996) and 102 Dalmatians (2000). More importantly, the Xerox process and the commercial success of the film saved Disney’s animation studio.

Ratatouille was the 8th animated feature from Pixar and the first that the pioneering studio greenlit in Emeryville without the input of Walt Disney Pictures. Some speculated that the marketing challenges of a movie with an unpronounceable title, about a food preparing rat, would mark the end of Pixar’s streak of commercial smashes. Opening June 2007, the picture grossed $206.4 million in the U.S. and $414.9 million overseas; only Finding Nemo and The Incredibles had a better box office run. It was bestowed five Academy Award nominations, the most for any Pixar film up to that time. Brad Bird won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Cultural impact edge: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, 1961

Winner: One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians has endured as a great entertainment and pioneering achievement in the arts in a way that Ratatouille — sensational while it’s playing, a bit harder to recall quite as fondly months after the viewing experience — just can’t measure up to yet. Brad Bird is a genius, but I think even his fans would admit that some of the greatest animators in history were engaged to bring One Hundred and One Dalmatians to life.

Your thoughts?

Tags: Alternate universe · Animation · Based on novel · Dreams and visions · No opening credits

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Jul 10, 2009 at 7:55 am

    This is one of your cuter taste tests and one where it is difficult to reach a final conclusion since both films are classic. We are so used to computer-generated animation now that earlier ones can seem flat. However I agree that this is one of Disney’s best films and its wittiness and the superb characterization, especially for the different breeds of dogs, makes it feel round and alive. I thought that Ratatouille was amazing, even if the concept of rats scurrying around a kitchen is actually a little offputting, and I marginally prefer its voice cast. You’re probably right in deeming Dalmatians the winner on balance, but it’s a close call.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // Jul 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

    I’d give it to “Ratatouille.” “101 Dalmations” is a great movie and has the magic Disney touch of the remaining “Nine Old Men,” but the human characters are lacking, save for Cruella, and the movie suffers from the yin-yang of elaborate character animation and cost-cutting backgrounds.

    “Ratatouille,” however, has yet to be topped (in these eyes) as a detailed, full-bodied entertainment with superb voice-casting, character design and inventive …inventive… action set-pieces.

    And it actually manages to say something about cuisine…and creativity…and doesn’t cheat the consequences.

    legacy aside (and even included!) “Ratatouille” is the better film.

    (And is puppy-skinning less off-putting than rats in the kitchen?)

  • 3 kelsy // Jul 10, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I’m afraid the 101 Dalmatians that I remember is the live-action one from the 90s, so I can offer not judgment.

  • 4 Fairlington Blade // Jul 11, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Interesting that the scoring was a draw: 2 – 2 with one draw.

    I’d have been tempted to put Ratatouille up against a live action cooking film. Say, Big Night vs. Ratatouille.

    Of course, there’s another potential idea for a taste test. Say, Big Night vs. No Reservations. c


  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jul 11, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Patricia: I feel lucky charmed over here to have hit upon two movies you feel are classics, much less great films. I can’t say that I disagree with anything you wrote, except that Ratatouille feels a bit like it came together, rather than the the script ever was hit into the bleachers. That is a very minor criticism though. I think it is an amazing film.

    Jim: I think you convinced me. I want my vote back. Thanks for commenting!

    Kelsy: I’m not going to ask how old you were when you saw the live action one but the word “pup” does come to mind (only in the context of this article).

    BB: Very interesting suggestions. My favorite live action cooking flicks are Eat Drink Man Woman and Big Night, both of which are pretty flawed when they try to leave the kitchen and would get beat by Ratatouille in every category. I do wish I had put it up against Lady and the Tramp, which was a bigger influence on Brad Bird than One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but … NI! Thanks for commenting!

  • 6 Megan // Jul 11, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I still haven’t seen Ratatouille. I still can’t believe that. I’m going to have to borrow my nephew’s copy, and then I’ll get back to you on this one!

  • 7 AR // Jul 12, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I wrote a long reply to this a few days ago, but it wouldn’t post. I haven’t yet seen Ratatouille, so I’m unable to compare. It’s been a while since I’ve seen 101 Dalmations, but I agree that it’s pretty solid. Stylistically, Disney was behind other animators throughout the 50’s, which is not to disregard their innovations with repeat animation in the film. Or their attempt to adapt new elements to the core Disney style.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Jul 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Megan: Go!

    Amanda: I’m very disgruntled that your original comment was kiboshed. The server was down an hour and a half late Thursday night. Up yours, North Korea! Anyway, I’m curious which animators you felt were ahead stylistically of Disney in the ’50s. And I highly recommend adding these Pixar films to your rental queue: Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo.

  • 9 AR // Jul 13, 2009 at 8:07 am

    UPA and Warner Bros. both played with flattened space and sketchy lines/shapes in the 50’s. Now that I think about it, Disney features and shorts did play with some of these ideas prior to 101 Dalmations, but it still l0oks more contemporary than previous features.

  • 10 rml // Aug 3, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    I thought Ratatouille was the best picture of 2007. Fabulously written — you cannot help but be moved by O’Toole’s speech towards at the end — and the concept was impeccably executed. It was a better movie than No Country for Old Men and it was a better movie than Slumdog Millionaire. An animated movie that transcends the genre has to be better than one that didn’t. (And by the way, Up needs to get a best picture nomination this year.)

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