It is both convenient and at times very useful to divide Disney's history into certain periods. The simplest (and thus, the least useful) of these divisions is into the classic period - from the beginning to Walt's death - and the modern period. That this is plainly undesirable is because it suggests, among other things, that e.g. The Aristocats and Mulan are somehow related to one another.

Thus, there has grown up among animation buffs, with the encouragement of the Walt Disney Company (never missing a chance to re-write its own history!), a sort of standardised breakdown of the major periods of Disney feature animation. The Golden Age begins with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and ends with Bambi, including the five great films produced when money was easy to come by and ambition flowed like water. It was followed by the eight years of the package films, produced to keep costs down during and immediately after World War II; though this period lacks an "official" name, I like to think of it as simply the War Years. Whatever the case, this ended and the Silver Age began with Cinderella, the first in a mostly uninterrupted run of box office hits produced around the explosive early popularity of Disneyland, inaugurating a period of financial stability like the studio had not yet enjoyed. The Silver Age, so named because the films are neither as well-animated nor as well-loved as those from the Golden Age, ended with The Jungle Book, the final animated produced under Walt Disney's direct supervision. This was followed in turn by a lengthy interregnum in the 1970s and 1980s, during which Walt Disney Productions nearly blinked out of existence, until a team of bloodless, gifted businessmen took it over and introduced the Disney Renaissance, which lasted until the end of the century, and brought us at last to whatever period of Disney history we now find ourselves in, but each of these later periods will get its fair treatment at a later point in this retrospective.

The curious thing about this breakdown is that it takes no account of arguably the most important shift in aesthetic that occurred at any point in the whole 72-year-and-counting history of Disney. From an animation point of view, Disney history can be split into thirds: the hand-inked period, the xerography period, and the CAPS period (a fourth era is just starting up with The Princess and the Frog). It is at the dawn of the xerography period that we now find ourselves.

Now, the official story is this: Sleeping Beauty cost an arm and a leg, and it was a box-office failure, so the studio had to massively downsize its staff. Xerography gave them the chance to do more work with fewer people. Something about this has always struck me as deeply unlikely. See, it's damned hard to find completely trustworthy figures for box office returns 50 years ago, particularly for a movie that has received multiple successful re-releases, but the best info I can find is that Sleeping Beauty earned $21 million in 1959, or about $154 million in 2009 dollars, with a production cost of $6 million ($44 million in 2009). This meant that it grossed less than Cinderella, Peter Pan or Lady and the Tramp, which all produced extremely robust profits. Now, I'm no studio accountant, thank the good Lord, but I don't think that a movie which grosses approximately 3.5 times its production cost is so readily deemed a "failure", and with the profits from other three still sitting in the studio vault, with Disneyland showing no signs of slowing down, the notion that Disney simply HAD TO cut staff seems awfully unlikely. If you asked me, I'd blame mere indifference: Walt had been losing interest in the studio ever since announcing the theme park, and he likely knew quite well there'd be no more Sleeping Beautys in the future, making a large staff redundant. If we want to think the very worst of him, it could even be that he knew this new technology meant that he could fire all those people, and so he did, but I see no reason to be that willfully cynical.

Here, in a nutshell, is the technology I'm talking about: photocopying cells. In the traditional mode of doing things, the animators would draw in pencil or ink on paper, and send their sheets of paper off to the Ink & Paint Department, where the real work was done: a small army of uncredited artists - this is where most of the studio's female employees found themselves banished - laid a blank celluloid sheet over the sketch, and copied it in ink. This inked cel was then painted, and finally photographed. The revolution that Disney's great tech genius (and father of Mickey Mouse) Ub Iwerks made in 1959 was to figure out how to run blank cels through a Xerox machine, cutting the time the films spent in Ink & Paint dramatically. Because of this new technology, the studio could move ahead on what would become its 17th feature in 1961, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, a tale of two dalmatians who journey across Southern England to find their kidnapped puppies; to animated each of the 6,469,952 spots that would appear in the final movie would have been a nightmarish process without photocopying, and it is probably safe to say that the film would not have been produced otherwise.

The extremely primitive state of xerography at the time had dramatic implications for the animation. The technology had a hard time handling round objects, meaning that the flowing, soft look that had been the hallmark of Disney animation since its inception had to be replaced by a much more angular, graphic style - making Sleeping Beauty something of an accidental trendsetter in that regard. If I am not quite mistaken, it was around this time that Milt Kahl became the primary character designer for all the studio's films, and his love of angular graphic art doubtlessly helped to define the new aesthetic under this technology.

Moreover, since the animation was now coming directly from pencil sketches, there was a certain roughness to much of the drawing: there are many points, especially in this, the earliest of all the xerography features, where you can clearly see pencil marks meant to help the animator guide the shape of the character, that had never been erased. That was something that always happened at Ink & Paint! Why would the animators need to worry about it?

Because of these limitations, the look of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and the next several films afterward, has a very spontaneous, drafted feeling to it, that I have always privately though of in my mind as the "scratchy style". It cannot be over-emphasised how utterly different this makes the animation look even from a film released as scant two years earlier. I cannot say whether this new look, so modern and raw, is an improvement or not on the rounder, more flowing classical approach; that is certainly a matter of private opinion, and I can name a great many people who use words like "embalmed" and "stuffy" and "fussy" to describe '50s-style Disney animation who think that the new aesthetic is like a breath of fresh air, loose and not nearly so painfully serious. I can also say that Walt Disney allegedly despised the new look, preferring the storybook illustration approach of his company's earlier films. For myself, I think that it is a tremendous accident of history that this new design mentality should have been prominently employed by films that boasted some of the worst screenplays in the studio's history, tarring it by association, and that's a pity: it is a bit thrilling to see something new like this, particularly after 16 consecutive days of classic Disney. At the same time, it's strictly a cartoon aesthetic: you could never have a masterpiece of animated painting like Sleeping Beauty with a look like this.

If I believe One Hundred and One Dalmatians to be the single truly great work from the early, unrefined xerography period - which I do - it's because this is the only one that has a story particularly suited to the new aesthetic. It was followed in short order by The Sword and the Stone and The Jungle Book; two stories that conceptually could have been produced at any point in Disney history. Dalmatians is different. In this case, I think the story men - I'm sorry, the story man! For this was the first Disney feature that was a solo writing project, courtesy of Bill Peet. Now what Peet realised is that the sketchier look of animation fundamentally altered the kind of story he could tell: it had to be just as loose and playful as the animation was. It's no coincidence that the films made in this style are, to a one, some of the most straightforward comedies that Disney had ever produced. In fact, prior to Dalmatians, I don't think they'd ever made a straight-up animated comedy feature.

So that was the first step: it had to be a comic tale. Secondly, though this was a function of the Dodie Smith book, it was set in contemporary times. Only Dumbo and maybe Bambi had previously enjoyed that distinction, along with some of the package segments. With the very next film, Disney would experiment with applying the scratchy look to period-piece stories, and it frankly just doesn't work as well: in so many ways, Dalmatians was the most modern Disney film at that point, with a distinctly contemporary sense of humor and attitude (in the previous features, only the prince's joke about "This is the 14th Century" in Sleeping Beauty has anything like this modern sensibility). The modernised look of the animation contributed to that greatly. At the same time, the mentality guiding the background paintings changed dramatically to fit this new order: they are every bit as sketchy and angular as the characters, with a clearly deliberate rejection of detail or subtlety to help set off the animation. I would say that the film oozes cheapness, for especially coming when it did it has the definite feeling of a cost-cutting measure; except that the marriage between the character animation and the backgrounds is quite unusually good here. It was perpetually a problem in Silver Age Disney films, and even worse in the '70s, for the solid-color character cels to clash with the richly painted backdrops. There is none of that seen in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which might indeed be the last film for which that is completely true until the rise of CAPS in the early 1990s.

Now as I said, this might all have failed without a particularly strong, well-designed screenplay, and Dalmatians has exactly that. Mixing pop culture and pop culture satire (the Kanine Krunchies commercial is hilariously banal, and the true-crime game show "What's My Crime?" still works even today as a parody of excessive reality programming) with a fine adventure story, some nifty conceptual stuff involving the way that canine society in England is structured, a whole bunch of great slapstick gags, and just enough love story to keep it all human, this is absolutely a kids' movie, but it's a pretty great example of my oft-contended idea that a kids' movie needn't be pandering. A family of dalmatian puppies is kidnapped so that a crazy, vain woman can make herself a dalmatian-skin coat: I dare you to imagine that a studio executive would even think of greenlighting that today, if it didn't have the classic imprimatur already. It can't be done. And anyway, that's ignoring the many little touches that give the story weight and texture: the father dog Pongo's gently arch narration, the throwaway details about the human home of Roger and Anita, owners of the dalmatians, the well-defined and perfectly individualised personalities of every single animal in the movie, even the ones that get just a couple lines of dialogue. There's even a brief tossed-in scene about the creation of pop music, as Roger comes up with the "melody first, my dear, then the lyrics" for a song about Anita's awful school "friend", Cruella De Vil - one of the catchiest, wittiest songs in all Disney.

It doesn't hurt any that Cruella just so happens to be a fairly magnificent achievement of character animation. I - look, I absolutely adore Maleficent and Ursula, I think that the Queen from Snow White could not have been improved upon, Lady Tremaine is the most evil bitch I have ever seen in a movie, Scar is a painfully brilliant piece of physical acting, I adore that Ratigan has Vincent Price's voice, and Chernabog still makes the hairs on my neck stand up. But in my heart of hearts, I know that Cruella De Vil is my favorite Disney villain. She is the one character to take full advantage of the scratchy style: from her hair to her toes, literally, she exploits every last savage pencil mark and straight line. Her grossly angular face; the skinny, bony shoulders that poke out every now and then; her reed thing arms and legs - all of these are things that would have never been imagined before the xerography era, and yet are perfect for this character, especially as contrasted with her omnipresent giant fur coat. Near the end, when she becomes truly insane with rage against the dogs who have been plaguing her, she turns into a monstrous caricature of femininity - and it must absolutely be conceded that she is one of the most misogynistic villains in the canon - that is both terrifying and hilarious.

Nor is all the genius in her design: she moves as much as any character in any Disney film, flailing about and storming back and forth in a hectic flurry of activity. And not once does she move with anything less than flawlessly-executed animation. She was the last animation created by Marc Davis, who left to help design such timeless Disneyland rides as Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion; and a better swan song he could not possibly have asked for then this amazing, amazing beast of a woman, the epitome of all the thing he knew about the art of animation.

Cruella so dominates the film, both visually and narratively, despite being in it for only a relatively small number of scenes, it can be hard to pay attention to the rest of the animation, which is a shame indeed. Given the technical changes happening around this time, the extremely fine work done across the board should not be taken for granted. It's no Lady and the Tramp in this regard, but the animation of the dogs is always quite appealing and natural, especially in the case the two parent dalmatians. There are many tiny gestures that fall somewhere between dog and human that work quite well in the cartoon universe of this film; the animals' personalities come out so clearly through their animation - Pongo's reactions during the birth scene are a particularly well-executed example.

I think it's also perhaps the case that the animation isn't so immediately obvious because for the first time in a long time, it wasn't supposed to be. This was the most light-hearted and fun Disney movie in more than a decade, not least in its unpolished, sketchy look; a look that practically scream, "look, this is just a funny cartoon. It's no art installation, or anything". Of course that's deceptive - the Disney animators were dedicated craftsmen who would never give anything but their finest work, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians is certainly noteworthy for the significant contrast between its simple lines and the complexity and perfection of its character animation.

But it achieves that without trying to show off, and when all is said and done it really is one of the most entirely fun, entertaining of all Disney features. 1961 audiences would apparently concur: it was a pretty decent-sized hit, proving to the company that this stripped-down aesthetic would still bring in a crowd, and so they could spend some time refining it. The immediate effect was a movie that had cleaner, more ambitious animation, but a bit less of everything else: this was one case where lightning didn't strike twice, and none of the "light and funny" features of the next decade and change had one tenth the wit and charm - and, I daresay, the humanity - of One Hundred and One Dalmatians.