How watching old Disney movies can remind us to find the quiet magic in our everyday lives
Comparing 2021's Cruella to 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians may hold a lesson about how we want to live
This summer, Disney released a new take on its classic villain Cruella de Vil. But although I very much enjoyed Cruella, its biggest gift to me was inspiring me to go home and re-watch Cruella's original appearance in the 1961 animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
The new Cruella is all about the extraordinary, but I have to admit, I found the old animated movie much more striking — not because it matched the fast-paced plot twists and jaw-dropping visuals of its 2021 counterpart, but in fact the opposite. I was struck by how unhurried the plot was, and by the quiet and subtle charm of a movie where not that much actually happens.
If pre-pandemic life were a movie, it would be a lot like Cruella: every moment was action-packed, everyone was constantly hustling just to stay afloat, and there was rarely, if ever, a chance to catch your breath. And while that nonstop pace might make for an entertaining couple hours, it certainly wasn't working in our real lives, where the pressure was leaving us all burnt out and overstimulated.
But the pandemic has made us switch genres. As we've been forced to slow down, it's become clear that there is joy to be found in aspects of our lives that sometimes seem mundane. Old Disney movies, like One Hundred and One Dalmatians, centre around these simple, day-to-day beauties and take an unrushed approach while still being entertaining, and funny, and magical. I wonder if they might serve as an example of how embracing a slower pace can benefit art, as well as artists.
Far from Cruella's emphasis on the unusual, One Hundred and One Dalmatians seems predominantly interested in the ordinary. Take the opening scene, for example. Pongo, our first dalmatian of the 101, is lying on a bench by the window and slowly waking from a nap. Between yawns, he delivers a meandering, stream-of-consciousness monologue. As he looks out the window at a parade of humans and their lookalike dogs, Pongo spies another dalmatian being walked by a beautiful woman. He rushes his owner out the door for a walk to the park where he stages a run-in. Cut to: true love, all set to a simple piano score.
Even though the events of the opening sequence consist mostly of a dog and his owner taking a walk, it's never boring despite how slowly it unfolds. In fact, when I think of some of the most iconic scenes from that era of Disney animated films, the subject matter is fairly commonplace: think of Cinderella cleaning the floor, surrounded by suds, or the Lady and the Tramp kiss scene, where two dogs eat food they find in the back alley of a restaurant. These moments sound so mundane when they're described just as actions, but the way they're animated brings you deeply into the feeling.
Of course, these scenes are filled with Disney's signature surrealism and whimsey, but they all centre around the everyday. And instead of going full-force toward the extraordinary, they begin with an ordinary subject and simply deem it worthy of its own kind of magic. A lot of modern movies go the Cruella route: they hit us over the head with action from start to finish. However, getting lost in the beauty of simple moments can be a lot more captivating — in part because we recognize them from our own lives.
Interestingly, Cruella and One Hundred and One Dalmatians do have one thing in common beyond their shared source material: they both came on the heels of a crisis. While the theatrical premiere of Cruella was delayed more than five months because of the pandemic, Dalmatians almost didn't get made in the first place.
Disney hadn't yet recovered from the financial underperformance of earlier animated films like Sleeping Beauty, and there was a question of whether the studio could afford to continue doing animation at all. The film also presented a specific problem — that is, well, the 101 Dalmatians themselves. That's a lot of animated pups, especially at a time when animating with handmade drawings was extremely time-consuming and costly. But a new technique called xerography allowed them to expedite the animation process and save a huge amount of time and money. They used the technique for the first time on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and it became one of the highest-grossing films of 1961.
Xerography was an innovation born out of crisis, and without it, Disney might have stopped making animated movies altogether. Right now, as artists and the industries they work in are only beginning to recover from the crisis of the pandemic, I think there's something to be learned from the way these old films turned a necessity into a success story — one that privileges the beauty of ordinary life.
Now that the world is slowly reopening, I think artists of all kinds are feeling a lot of pressure to rush in and try to make up for lost time. Often, as artists, we expect the extraordinary from ourselves — and not in a fun, technicolor way. Figuratively speaking, we expect ourselves to be able to animate 101 dogs by hand without burning out. But sometimes a crisis can show us what needs to change if we intend to move forward.
A lot of modern movies go the Cruella route: they hit us over the head with action from start to finish. However, getting lost in the beauty of simple moments can be a lot more captivating.
This past year, we've been forced to re-invest in the most ordinary aspects of our lives — going for walks, cleaning our homes, making ourselves food — because it's all we had. It's made us see the unfolding of daily life as a necessary part of being an artist. As it turns out, getting enough rest and having some work-life balance is truly magical. What if we insisted that these simple joys were essential?
This kind of happy ending might take longer than an hour or two, and probably won't end with a house full of dalmatians. But who knows — we might already have all the magic we need.