Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Children’s Gothic Adventure 2: A Look at Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.

In the last post of this series examining Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, we unpacked the film’s origins, and made a brief comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of both the print and screen versions of the story.  There were several other aspects of the book I forgot to mention, such as how the film handles the two henchmen, or the fact that the villain had an actual husband in the book.  Perhaps the reason no time was spent on these plot elements is because they were so minor as to make little impact in the original book itself.

This post will deal with the Disney film itself.  From now on, any attention paid to the source material will strictly be in service to examining how a third (maybe even fourth) rate book can be turned into an A-class film for both kids and adults.  The best place to start is with none other than Uncle Walt, and a hitherto overlooked aspect of his talent as a filmmaker.

A Talent for Darkness.

I know how that sounds, and I don’t blame anyone who thinks such an idea is suspect, at best.  91 years from the first Mickey Mouse cartoon is more than enough time for the image of Walt Disney as Master of the Land of Enchantments, and Keeper of the Keys to the Magic Kingdom, to cement itself (perhaps forever) in the public.  The main reason for this has to do less with Disney the artist, and more to do with marketing.  Aside from animation, Walt’s other talent was an almost uncanny knack for the right form of self-promotion at the right time.  The best example of this had to be when the launch of the Disneyland ABC anthology series cemented his public image as a man of wholesome family entertainment.  Neal Gabler puts it best in his definitive biography:

“He was the country’s great national uncle, “Uncle Walt,” as some took to calling him.  Walt was now consciously fostering that image…As his creations conveyed reassurance, so did the man.  He was calm, modest, unprepossessing, homespun, curious, charming, and of course, avuncular – the perfect guest to have in one’s living room each week…. After Disneyland, Walt Disney was perhaps the most widely recognized filmmaker in the world, and (animator Ward) Kimball believed that Walt had to conform to the public persona, which made him the very personification of American wholesomeness and decency.  He was not merely subsumed by the persona, as he had been in the postwar years, he felt he had to internalize it, live within it, becoming a prisoner of his image as he had been a prisoner of his studio (512 – 13)”.

What I’d like to do here is set Disney free from the prison of his artificial, acculturated public image.  I want show an alternate image, one that spotlights where I believe his true strengths as a filmmaker lie.  All true artist have their strong points, a particular subject matter that more often than not is able to bring their creative strengths into the spotlight.  Ray Bradbury wrote quite a number of mainstream stories, yet it’s always either science fiction or horror that shows where his real talent as an author resides.  In the same way, the Weird Tales writer Clarke Ashton-Smith wrote a great deal of poetry, and always considered verse his true calling.  It doesn’t change the fact that most of his poems offer just hints and fragments of inspiration.  You have to go to his short stories of Gothic other-worlds and the monsters who inhabit them to discover the full reach of his visionary imagination.  In the same way, Walt Disney shared one important trait with the two pulp scribes mentioned above.  All three men had a shared talent for displaying the darker corners of the human mind.   

This is a talent best on display in the more of out the way pictures his studio produced.  While the media will forever push the image of Uncle Walt the Babysitter, it ignores the facts of Disney the Artist.  More to the point, it ignores that fact that some (I’m almost tempted to call it most) of his best work was done when working well within the creative parameters of the Gothic genre.

Stop and think for a moment about the scenes from the classic Disney canon that most often make their way into the best-of lists.  You have a chase by a monstrous whale, you have children turned into screaming, keening donkeys, and of course there’s Bambi’s Mother.  The guiding thread that unites all these samples is that each represents the moment when Disney dispenses with the customary magic and tips the scales well into the realm of the horrific.  What makes these moments memorable is just how well constructed they are.  All three depend on the action that has gone for the last half hour or so.  In that span of time, Disney has lulled you into a secure sense of whimsy.  We’ve hung around long enough for the ideas of the fantasy genre to take hold of our minds.  We believe we know what we’re in for in the story of a puppet come to life, or the bildungsroman of a deer in a forest.  Disney is so adept at achieving this sense of security that it ensures the gut-punch of the sudden switch to horror leaves more of an impact.
This dark streak in Disney’s creativity has been noted by enthusiasts and scholars.  However, this penchant for the macabre is most often noted when discussing The Haunted Mansion, or else the nature of Disneyland’s dark rides.  So far, no one has ever bothered to examine Walt’s affinity for horror or stories with a decidedly dark and Gothic bent.  This essay hopes to remedy that lack.  I’d like to suggest that Disney is a natural at telling ghostly yarns of the supernatural.  I’d also like to go further than that.  I wish to assert here that Disney was usually at his most creative whenever he took his films into the dark areas where most fans fear to tread.  This is an ongoing concern, and this essay will hopefully be the first of many to help bring awareness to Disney as a legitimate Gothic artist.  The best place to start this critical analysis is with a look at the thematic and literary echoes contained in 101 Dalmatians.  There sure to be a few surprises on the way.  The most remarkable discovery could be just how a simple children’s film can contain a great deal of thematic richness, and how it shares the concerns, and above all, the fears of both Noir and the Gothic genres.

A Question of Genre and Character.  

According to Paul Meehan’s book-length study, Horror Noir:
“The horror film comes in basically two flavors: supernatural and psychological.  In supernatural horror, the threat to societal order comes from something preternatural or anomalous: a haunted house, a curse, or a monster like a vampire or werewolf.  These threats are external to any human agency and are inflicted upon the characters by the designs of fate…By the early 1940s the supernatural horror film had become passé, and began to be superseded by a new brand of psychological horror film…this shift away from the preternatural and toward the psychological provided a fresh direction for the horror film, and one that brought it closer to the orbit of film noir.  The screen began to be populated less by supernatural creatures and more by human monsters.  Evil was not external, deriving from a non-human source, but internal, reflecting the darkness in men’s souls.  Like film noir, horror movies became studies in the psychopathology of evil.  The psychological horror film emerged at the same time as film noir, and the two forms developed along parallel course contemporaneously (4 – 5)”.

If you had to ask me which type of genre Dalmatians qualifies as, then I’d have to say all the elements go together to lump it into the psychological horror study, rather than straight noir.  There are too many elements of the classic English Gothic setting about the film for it to fit in neatly with something like The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Rather than a sordid domestic drama, we’re treated to a kidnap and chase caper, first in an old dark mansion, then through the country-side of a bleak, English winter.  These ingredients are indicative of the cozier British mystery yarn, and yet there is a slight overlay of horror in the form of the film’s villain.

At its heart, 101 Dalmatians is a combination or melding of two genres into one.  On the surface, what we are presented with is a riff on the standard English chase caper of the kind churned out by Michael Powell and Emerick Pressburger in their prime.  While the Chase Caper is an important aspect of the film, it’s really just a skeleton, a ball field in which the narrative and its characters can play their game.  Beneath this kid-friendly exterior lies the sub-basement level where the movie works its true power.  What Disney has given us is a stalker film in the shape of a kiddie flick.

By now Cruella de Vil has pretty much left enough of an imprint on viewers young and old to qualify as one of the best screen villains ever.  The main reason is that she isn’t content to be just a one note baddie.  While her portrayal in the story is simple enough for a child to grasp, the good news is that she slowly reveals the subtlety underneath the broad character strokes.  It’s when the child has become an adult that the element of horror in the character reveals its full scope.  This element is all the more clear to any adult who has also grown into the role of a caring parent  Cruella is a character who deserves to take her place in the grand pantheon of movie stalkers.  The reason no one has ever dared suggest an idea like this is because of a very ironic gap in our thinking. 

The idea that a kid’s movies can also contain elements found in adult works such as Psycho, or Peeping Tom is not so much anathema as simply unheard of.  Our current idea of what constitutes a children’s film is such that we often point to films like The Incredibles as an example of a mature kid flick.  The irony is that while we hang on to our popular perception of maturity in children’s entertainment, a film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can sneak such themes as familial homicide, and psychotic obsession right into the brains of impressionable young minds. The biggest irony is that somehow this stuff is able to get past the censors. It still doesn’t change the fact that such elements are also a part of the old fairy tale books that are still read to children on a daily basis. Dalmatians is no different in this regard.  Though the volume is turned down a notch, and there’s nary a drop of blood in sight, Disney’s film is still a thriller centered around a stalker and the family she terrorizes.

This is an idea I’d like to unpack further.  In the next installment of this series, we’ll take a deep dive into the film’s mind of the hot-rod driving baddie at the heart of the movie and show that she is full of echoes and allusions to famous horror psychos of the past.  This will be the final bid towards a better appreciation of the hidden artistry that undergirds one dark horse candidates in the Disney canon.

Stick around for next time, if you dare!  Before that, let me know what think of my thoughts on the matter in the comments section below.  Be seeing you!


  1. Good stuff, sir!

    I like that first image you chose a heck of a lot. What's it from?

    I read a very interesting book years back along these lines called INVENTING THE CHILD by Joe Zornado. It's kind of tough to find, but the chapters in there on the darkness in Grimm and Disney were fascinating.

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Will you be covering WIND IN THE WILLOWS?

    1. "WITW" is something I'll probably get around to eventually. There are a whole slew of Victorian/Edwardian authors I'd like to write about, and Kenneth Graham is one of them.

      The trouble is finding the right doorway into the subject. So far, I'm still looking for that particular one that leads to "Willows".

    2. Also, thanks for pointing out the Zornado text. I'll have to look that one up.

  2. This is very fertile ground for blogging, I'd say.

    A fair lot of Disney's movies could be said to contain scenes that qualify as horror. This is certainly true of his early features -- Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Dumbo -- but it's also true of many of the shorts. Later films, too: the Sleepy Hollow segment of "Ichabod and Mr. Toad" for sure, but Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc., as well. I think it's an essential element of Disney's work as an artist.

    Of course, it's variable and/or debatable exactly how much of the credit for those various sequences he himself should get direct credit for. Still, the films in which he was personally involved all have a consistency of tone that speaks to a sort of singularity in vision, and if that singularity belongs to anyone, it's to Disney. He had lots of help along the way; but the fact remains that those are HIS movies at least much as they are anyone else's, and probably more.