The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA is not your typical Hollywood movie studio. With only five soundstages, no backlot and half its offices devoted to corporate business segments rather than film and television production, it doesn’t lend itself well to inviting guests from the outside world in. As a result, an invitation to the studio lot is a rare occasion for any Disney fan… unless you’re a D23 member. On February 8th, D23 opened the gates for a special screening to celebrate the Diamond Edition of Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.
Attendees parked in the Zorro Parking Structure, which gets its name from the land it sits on (it was the former backlot set for the TV series Zorro). The walk included a trip around a construction site (former home to the mill) with views of the water tower and passing between soundstages where Master Chef is currently filming. The Walt Disney Theater played host to the event, which is directly across from the old Animation Building. Check-in was smooth and every guest was given an activity book with six Valentine’s Day cards. Trivia and concept art played on screen inside the theater while guests enjoyed popcorn (courtesy of El Capitan Theater) and bottled water at no extra charge before the show.
D23’s Kelly kicked off the event with early previews of two bonus features for the Diamond Edition, which is now available on Blu-Ray and Digital HD. The first was a Disney Movies Anywhere exclusive about how Cruella De Vil was originally meant to be the villainess in The Rescuers. The other is from the Blu-Ray called Lucky Dogs, which features recent interviews with some of the team behind the film.
She then passed the presentation to Disney Archivist Kevin and Fox Carney from the Animation Research Library. The two hosted as moderators with guests Floyd Norman (animator), Lisa Davis (voice of Anita) and Mimi Gibson (voice of Lucky). The first question asked was about how they each came to be involved with this film. For Floyd, it was a short and sweet answer: “It was the next animated film.” But adding more layers to it, he mentioned that as Sleeping Beauty approached completion, The Sword in the Stone was scheduled to be the next animated feature and Walt bumped it in favor of 101 Dalmatians.
Mimi recalled auditioning with groups of kids and being selected for a role, but none of the child actors were cast as any specific character. She remembers going to school on the studio lot and each child would be called one by one to record lines for all of the puppies. It wasn’t until the film came out that she discovered her voice was used for Lucky.
Lisa’s first meeting with Walt Disney happened when she was twelve and production was starting on Alice in Wonderland. She had been cast as Alice, but at that time the film was going to be a live action/animation combo where Alice would be thrown into an animated Wonderland (a throwback to Walt’s Laugh-O-Grams Alice Comedies series). Unfortunately for Lisa, they changed their mind and she wasn’t used as Alice in the end. But Walt followed her career and when Dalmatians came up, he called her in to audition for Cruella. Lisa remembers auditioning with Walt while he read as Anita and Lisa felt like he had made a big mistake picturing her as Cruella. She eventually got up the courage to tell him she felt she would be more appropriate for Anita and Walt switched lines with her, casting her as Anita after that reading.
The next question asked what it was like working at the studio in the early 1960’s. Lisa referred to it as the “Rolls Royce of studios” because other studios became hostile towards the rise of television, but Disney was happy to embrace it rather than fight it which created a happier working atmosphere. Mimi remembers having a lot of fun at the studio, saying there was more “fantasy” at Disney than at other studios she worked at. Floyd said Walt was a dynamic leader and was present in everything.
When asked what it was like working on the film, Lisa gave an anecdote about how they provided her with several play sessions with Dalmatian puppies, some for publicity but also to help her get into the role. Her recording process was individual and she never met her costars, but she remembers repeating the same line repeatedly different ways. In the end, she felt like she was Anita. She was pregnant while recording her lines and found out years later from Andreas Deja that one draft for the ending scene featured a pregnant Anita, possibly a nod to Lisa’s real life pregnancy.
Mimi laughed about how none of the child voices were British, so they all had to do British accents while recording lines. Unlike Lisa, the children sometimes recorded in groups, although she also did her fair share of recording alone. She remembers being given directions to sound “cold” and “sad” during sessions. She also shared that she became famous amongst her classmates because there was a shop at Disneyland called The Art of Animation that featured a film reel promoting the film and her voice was the first one heard in the promo (the shop was open from 1960 to 1966 in Tomorrowland).
Floyd talked about Ken Anderson’s vision for the film and his very stylized approach to 1960’s London. Walt Peregoy did the color styling and he talked about his great use of color in a film that is predominantly white and black. The animation was done so fast on this film that the animators felt like they were turned loose. He feels this is the reason Cruella De Vil is Marc Davis’ best animation. He ended his answer talking about how even though Walt was preoccupied with other things, they still had their “Man in the forest” moments on a regular basis. They knew to stop goofing off and act professional by his warning cough that meant he wasn’t far away.
The final question asked the three how the film has affected their lives. Lisa never imagined the legacy this film would have. She is now a great grandmother and has enjoyed sharing this film with every generation of her family, including her great granddaughter, who is named Anita. Mimi professed that she is the biggest collector of all things 101 Dalmatians. Her dogs eat out of 101 Dalmatians bowls and treat containers and get dried off after bathes with 101 Dalmatians towels. Floyd ended the discussion on a more somber note, referencing that Walt Peregoy passed away a few months ago and that only a handful of animators from this film are still alive, referencing Wally Crump and Burny Mattinson as the only others still with us.
After a round of applause, the film began. I haven’t seen this film on the big screen since I was a kid experiencing it for the first time in its final theatrical rerelease in 1992. I remember obsessing over it and collecting plushes of all of the main puppies. It’s still one of my favorite animated classics and while the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray is the best its ever looked on home video, it was great to see this restoration on the big screen. It looked amazing and after the film, they dedicated this screening to Walt Peregoy and Rod Taylor, the voice of Pongo who also recently passed away.
As we exited the theater, we were given a parting gift in the form of a wine glasses that feature spots, the D23 logo and “101D.” The box also contained four Ghirardelli chocolates. The announcement was made that the Studio Store was open and a long line quickly formed for the opportunity to shop. We waited for about ten minutes with no movement before giving up. In my experience, the shop is 95% your average Disney Store merchandise with a few Studio specific items that can only be purchased there. I just renewed my membership and know that my next trip isn’t too far away, so I don’t feel like I missed an opportunity to procure a rare treasure for my grotto. As we walked back to the Zorro Parking Structure, I took one last look at the studio that Walt built, feeling the sense of history for all of the classic films I grew up with.