Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Children’s Gothic Adventure: An Analysis of 101 Dalmatians.

We’ve been studying Disney’s 101 Dalmatians with the goal of a closer look at several facets of the movie.  These are the elements that require a better in-depth study than the ones you can find in a simple newspaper review or on YouTube.  So far, we’ve covered the original book that the film was based on.  We have also made the case that the film deserves to be seen as more than just a kid’s flick. 

In the last post of this series, I made the case that the film should properly be seen as part and parcel of sub-genre known as psychological horror.  In other words, what I ask is what happens when we look at the film as a straightforward stalker thriller?  The last post was a set-up.  The ground rules for this particular genre were laid out.  I also introduced the film’s most iconic character, Cruella de Vil, as exhibit A as the main reason why the film fits in nicely with works like Wait Until Dark, or Peeping Tom.  This entry is meant to be the pay-off.
In this essay I intend to drive the point home.  I hope to prove that Dalmatians operates in well within the boundaries of the Gothic psychological thriller.  To do this, I’ll have to show the thematic connections and allusions the film has with others of its type.  There are two sources that I think help set the context for how Disney’s feature should be viewed and, more importantly, read, in terms of their basic setup and conflict.  Those films are the original 60s version of Cape Fear, and the last is Clint Eastwood’s first foray into the psychological thriller, Play Misty for Me.  

 In this case, the conflict revolves around what happens when ordinary people find themselves confronted with a sociopath bent on destroying the protagonists at any cost.  The plot layout is simple enough that we can isolate and focus on the connective strands of all four films based on an examination of their protagonists and villains.   The final piece of the puzzle comes from examining the characters and their narrative as part and parcel of a Gothic setting and story.  It’s surprising how much you can discover about a story just by examining the genre it’s related to.  The Gothic underpinnings of Dalmatians add a final folktale ingredient which manages to tie all loose ends together.

Cape Fear (1962).

Like 101 Dalmatians, Cape Fear is also a riff on the theme of hunter and prey.  It concerns lawyer     Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), and his family as they are stalked by a specter from Sam’s past.  This    specter comes in the hulking form of Max Cady (Robert Mitchum).  Eight years ago, in Baltimore, Sam and Cady had an altercation where Bowden barely able to prevent a physical assault on a woman.  Cady was apprehended and Sam was the key witness testimony against the big lug.  For those eight years Cady nursed a grudge against the young lawyer.  After he gets out on parole, Cady makes his way back toward Sam’s home of North Carolina.  Once Cady instigates a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse.  This game consists of the entire narrative of the plot as the Bowden family finds itself driven first from the legal profession, then their own home, and finally into the middle of nowhere.  It’s all Sam can do to keep losing everyone who matters most to him.

In some ways, I think Cape Fear can tell us more about the couple at the heart of Disney’s film than it can about the villain.  Max Cady is one of the great cinematic stalkers, however, his motivations diverge from Cruella’s in numerous ways.  The most notable is that all she is interested in is satisfaction of a fetish for fur coats.  Cady’s interests edge far into darker territory.

However, one theme both films shares is the conflict between order and chaos.  Both the Dalmatian couple and the Bowden family form a little microcosm.  In thematic terms, these two microcosmic family units represent humanity in general.  There is a basic normative order to their lives which is shattered the moment the stalker takes the stage.  In each case, it is the threat of order being overwhelmed by chaos that is the basic situation confronting each protagonist.  These concepts are not mine, by the way.  They were neatly laid out a long time ago by none other than Stephen King.  In his book-length study, Danse Macabre, King states that the struggle between chaos and order is perhaps the main underlying conflict for Gothic fiction in general.  Perhaps this conflict is what gives the genre its very motivation for existing.
“We…find ourselves returning to the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian, since this tension exists in all horror fiction, the bad as well as the good, leading back to endlessly fascinating question of who’s okay and who isn’t.  That’s really the taproot, isn’t it?  And we may also find that narcissism is the major difference between the old horror fiction and the new; that the monster are no longer due on just Maple Street, but may pop up in our own mirrors – at any time (265)”.

Such is the dilemma facing the couples of both movies.  In Sam’s case, it is not just the figure of Max Cady; it is also Cady’s conviction that deep-down Sam is no better or different than himself.  Cady is willing to go to great lengths to prove his belief.  His every move is designed to see if it will push Sam over the edge into breaking his code of ethics, both as a lawyer and a man.
The Dalmatian couple, while faced with less of a risk to their personal ethics, are still confronted with a very real threat in the form of Cruella.  The interesting part of their dilemma is that it is never fully explained.  All we know of Cruella is that she used to be a former school-mate of their owner, Anita.  Beyond that, we never learn much about except that there is a dangerous twist to her mind that makes her view everyone around as less than human.  She’s also cursed with a very short fuse temper, and it doesn’t take much to set her off.  Beyond that, the Dalmatians find themselves the unwitting victims of a threat they never seem to quite grasp or understand.  It is an interesting undercurrent for what appears to be a simple child’s film on the surface.

Play Misty for Me (1971).

“The girl calls up every night at about the same time and asks the disc jockey to play "Misty" for her.  Some nights he does. He's the all-night man on a small station in Carmel who plays records, reads poems, and hopes to make it someday in the big city. After work (and before work, for that matter) he drinks free at bars around town, places he sometimes mentions on the air. He had a steady girl for a while, but he's been free-lancing recently, and one night he picks up a girl in a bar. Or maybe she picks him up. She's the girl who likes "Misty." She is also mad. She insinuates herself into his life with a passionate jealousy, and we gradually come to understand that she is capable of violence. At the same time, the disc jockey's old love turns up in town, and he wants nothing more than to allow himself, finally, to quit playing the field and marry her. But the new girl doesn't see it that way. And she has this thing for knives (web)”.

Roger Ebert claimed the film was not the equal to Psycho (1960), however, he did consider it more or less an essential.  It’s also the kind of flick that allows the perceptive viewer to grasp the nature of the villain of 101 Dalmatians.   All you need to do is compare her with the Gothic heroine at the heart of Clint’ Eastwood’s first time in the director’s chair.  I was actually surprised to discover just how similar the villains of both films were.  On the one hand, you have Evie Draper (Donna Mills).  She presents a pleasant exterior on first acquaintance.  The trouble is it’s all a facade; one that she has trouble keeping up for very long.

At her core, Evie seems to be a woman with a missing element.  Something vital has been left out of her in a complete and total way.  For lack of a better word, I do wonder is this lost puzzle-piece is best described by the phrase “paternal affection”.  It’s not much, but at least offers some sort of rationale for the characters actions, at least as far as explanations go.  Still, this is just a theory.  The truth is we never learn much at all about her, except that, in the long run, she’s a sociopath who can’t stand the strain of reality.  

Whatever is wrong with Evelyn, it causes her to act out in very dangerous ways.  Once she zeroes in her chosen target, she will do everything in her power to keep that target under her thumb.  She insinuates her way into the life Dave Garver (Eastwood), and will not let him get away.  Her whole psychosis has focused in on one single, solitary point.  To give an idea of how Evie’s problem overlaps with the motivation of Disney’s character, imagine if it we’re “Ella” trying to Stalk Roger in the Mouse House film.  It’s a prospect that’s so frightening WD would never go within miles of it.  However, it does at least go far enough to given an idea of the kind of territory both movies work in. 
While her fixation is more oriented toward a substance than any one person, Ella’s obsession with an idea of fur coats is taken well beyond the bounds of a normal fashion taste.  Instead, se develops what can only be called a fetish for a type of clothing that doesn’t exist.  Perhaps it’s the very fact that such items are considered outside the norm, and is therefore verboten, that acts as both a draw and spur to her committing the deed.  This acts as such a fascination for her, that as she is continually denied her goal, the more unstable she becomes.    

At her core, Cruella represents a warped view of reality, one where people and animals are ultimately reduced to commodities whose value changes to the extent they are able to satisfy her own needs.  Like Evelyn, Cruella’s can’t stand the pressure of reality.  Because she insists on being at odds with the demands of real life, she has to mentally project herself as not just a superior woman, but as almost a kind of higher being that stands well above all the litter people out there in the dark.  In choosing this life goal for herself, Cruella de Vil becomes a perfect agent for the thematic forces of chaos.

Chaos or Order?

There has to be a reason certain stories resonate with an audience.  There seems to be some kind of element in the imaginative experience of both writing, reading, and viewing a work of fiction that draws us in.  It’s the hook that keeps us coming back for more, even if we’ve already read or seen it before.  I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that even the most surreal and outlandish narratives contain at least some small relation to real life.  This relation isn’t literal.  There’s a whole world of difference between a work of fiction and real life.  For one thing, everything is heightened to a theatrical level.  No one in real life behaves with same dramatic gestures and flourishes like those in a make-believe narrative.  Instead, the importance lies on a more symbolic, thematic level.  Fiction is able to have a value becomes the symbols in it can sometimes tell us something important about life. 
In the case of 101 Dalmatians, the symbols we’re working with boil down to a conflict between four inter-related concepts; Order vs. Chaos, and the difference between Gothic Wanderers and Outsiders.  If Cruella represents the disorder of Narcissism, then she also a catalyst for change.  Her arrival precipitates tearing apart, both literally and figuratively, the happy existence of an otherwise normal family.  In addition to being a Narcissist, Cruella is also something of a metaphorical (not literal) vampire.  The sole reason she is able to prey on the Radcliffs because door was left open in the first place. 

In this reading, the Radcliff flat represents its own little microcosm of order.  The trouble is this order has a flaw in it.  While Dalmatian family is nowhere in danger of the kind of narcissism exhibited by Cruella, there is a dangerous temptation of a different sort.  Pongo and Perdita would never go into a deranged mania about some material substance to the exclusion of their own children.  However, there is a kind of inattentive, lackadaisical aspect to how they handle Cruella’s threats the first time out.  It’s true they don’t like her.  They know right off the bat she’s a rotten personality, who could never care for their pups.  However, even with the vampire right in their own living room, with warning sirens going off in their own heads, they are too comfortable with the ease of their way of living to begin to guess the depths of the insanity they’ve let into their lives.

From there, the rest of the film is one rude awakening after another as they couple discover just how far down the dark rabbit Cruella is willing to lead them in a demonstration of her own lack humanity.  It is these moments of discovery that link Pongo and Perdy to people like the Bowden family or Clint Eastwood’s DJ.  They Everyman characters who find their neat little microcosm ripped away.  Both parents then finds themselves unceremoniously thrust into the role of Wanderers in a quintessential Gothic landscape, the English countryside in Fall and Winter.  Throughout this, they are stalked by a deranged Outsider in the form of de Vil. 

In this, they are typical Gothic protagonists.  Gothic fiction is unique in that it's the one genre where you are allowed to get away with a lecture on manners and morals.  If you try that with any other film, it seems, the audience is more than happy to call you bluff and put you in your place.  Perhaps the fact the gothic is the premiere genre of the grotesque that allows its get away with tacking a moral on the end of it's sermons.  Allegory in a political fable, or a space fantasy can come off as trite.  Whereas the minute you bring a monster shambling out of the dark all the audience can think of is whether the horror will be bested or allowed to devour.  We can take a tragic end in a Gothic story, yet even there, we feel it's wrong unless some sort of lesson has been learned; some sort or sense of Order re-affirmed.

According to Stephen King, “the work of horror really is a dance – a moving, rhythmic search.  And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level.  The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.  Such a work dances right through these rooms which we have fitted out one piece at a time, each piece expressing – we hope! – our socially acceptable and pleasantly enlightened character (4)”.

In the case of the Dalmatians couple, perhaps they do fancy themselves as enlightened.  Yet how enlightened is it to let someone like Cruella through your front door?  The irony is that while chaos has been invited in, it doesn’t have the final say.  As King observes, the film’s villain is an element of horror that tears through the main characters lives, upsetting whatever sense of respectability they were originally banking on to see them through.  The curious part is that while order is assaulted in the film, it isn’t bested.  Instead the protagonists are forced into seeking out a sense or idea of order, one that doesn’t ignore or turn a blind eye toward the potential pitfalls and hazards lying in their way.  However, it is also a search for an order both completes and sustains.  In doing so, perhaps the film shows where its real value lies.  As King observes yet again:

“(The Horror Story’s, sic) main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands.  Within the framework of most horror tales we find moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.  In the old E.C. comics, adulterers inevitably came to bad ends and murderers suffered fates that would make the rack and the boot look like kiddy rides at the carnival.  Modern horror stories are not much different from the morality plays of the fifteenth, and seventeenth centuries when we get right down to it…We have the comforting knowledge that when the lights go down in the theater or when we open the book that the evildoers will almost certainly be punished, and measure will be returned for measure (422)”.

In 101 Dalmatians, the lesson seems to hang on question of moral responsibility and a better of understanding of an ordered life.  Because of this hidden, thematic emphasis on the need for some kind of normative order, both inner and outer, that the film is able to leave such a strong impact, especially on younger viewers.  If these elements weren’t present, then I’m not sure we’d still be talking about the movie to this day.  It’s in the hidden depths of a work of art where find out what makes it tick and why you like it.  In case of Walt Disney’s 1961 feature, what we are give is a neat little journey through the dark to find just a bit of light. 



  1. I've never seen "Play Misty For Me." It's on my list, though, so someday, maybe.

    A very interesting way to look at "101 Dalmatians." I can't speak to the Eastwood film at all, but I have seen both the original and the remake of "Cape Fear," and I can see a sort of similarity with Cruella. Both she and Max are presented as larger-than-life foes; if they have nothing else in common, they have that. It would be very easy for Max to turn the corner into being a non-literal cartoon; heck, DeNiro's take on Cady all by makes that idea plain (even including direct references to the Big Bad Wolf).

    Great stuff here, #6!

    1. Confession: I thought about trying to work in "Misery" for this post.

      The trouble is there is at least some sort of thematic connection, I'm just not sure how it works out. Also, I there was the threat of going on too long, and I didn't want to drag things out more than necessary. I'm still turning the "Misery" angle over in my head, though I'm not sure if anything will come of it.