Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Children's Gothic Adventure.

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

What’s there to talk about?  It’s Walt Disney, after all.  No other figure in the history of entertainment  has ever been scrutinized and studied with such care and detail by both fans and critics.  Perhaps the Beatles are the closest comparison in terms public awareness.  While the company he started has waxed and waned with the times and fashions, very little has been able to shake the public image of Uncle Walt.  The difference is public awareness doesn’t equal public knowledge.
When most people think of Disney, their minds go automatically to their favorites, whether it’s a classic like Snow White, or an out of the way entry like The Black Cauldron or the even more obscure Saludos Amigos.  The trouble is that seems to be as far as most of us can go when it comes to assessing Disney as a storyteller.  We don’t know art, we just know we like (insert Disney film of choice here).  The good news is that it turns out Walt is the sort of filmmaker who bears up under close scrutiny most of the time.  In particular, once you get the hang of it, you begin to notice some interesting facts about Disney’s strengths as an artist.

The idea that Disney conjures in our minds most of the time is of stories full of magic and enchantment that the whole family can enjoy.  This seems due mainly to a preference by most audiences for material like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, etc.  The reason these straightforward fantasies have such an enthusiastic following begins to make sense when you realize that most of the people who go to see these films are parents with their kids in tow.  Because the company has been so good at drawing in the child demographic, it makes sense that Disney would get a reputation as a kid’s entertainer.  This reputation has taken on such larger than life proportions that Walt’s other qualities have, almost by necessity, been shoved aside, or else swept under the rug.  This ignores the other side of Disney as a Gothic artist.

There are several films in the Disney canon that illustrate this idea.  For now, I’d like to examine several narrative facets of Disney’s 1961 production, 101 Dalmatians, in the hopes of getting audiences to pay more attention to the textual nuances of the film.  I’d like to examine the movie in terms of its inspiration, its narrative influences, and how it fits in to the genre of the Gothic thriller.  I hope to uncover aspects of the film that have not been discussed before.  With any luck, it could help audiences view a fan favorite from a fresh perspective.

The Story.

The heart of the narrative is one of those strange ideas that by all natural reason shouldn’t work.  That Disney was able to make it work is one of the great testaments to the triumph of the imagination over the cynicism of the everyday.  The film centers around a married couple living in London.  Their names are Pongo and Perdita.  They live a normal life, as far as things go.  There’s not much to complain about.  By and large their life seems limited to all the normal challenges and potential heartbreaks.  They have their flat, the kids, and their extended family members, Roger and Anita.

The first sign of trouble emerges in the form of a specter from Anita’s past.  Her “dearly devoted old schoolmate” Cruella has taken a shine to Perdita’s children.  This doesn’t sit right with her or her husband, for some reason.  Cruella paints a very over-the-top portrait, but that’s not the real problem.  She’s puts her best social presence forward, and yet…  She’s cold, with very little awareness of the    cares of others (her constant putdown of Roger’s aspiring song-writing abilities is just the tip of the iceberg).  Also her pleasant exterior never manages to go far.  With her loud and brash ways, it’s easy to dismiss her as a harmless eccentric.  This is how she always came off to Anita, presumably.  However, the couple just doesn’t trust her.  This is an opinion shared by Roger as well, and the insults to his musical talent aren’t the half of it.  For one thing, Cruella has a tendency to fly off the handle just a bit too easily.  Her temper is mercurial at the best of times, and you just can’t shake the idea that bad things could happen if she ever got pushed too far.        
In the end, Roger, Pongo, and Perdy, all decide it’s best if the children have as little to do with Cruella as possible.  She doesn’t take the news at all well, going so far as to say they can “drown the little beasts” for all she cares.  “You’ll be sorry” she tells them as she storms out of the couple’s flat, not before giving her opinion of them all as idiots on the way.  Still, it’s a bridge everyone is willing to let burn, and pretty soon everyone has moved on.  Life still has to go on, and all that.  This is more than true with the kids starting to get on their first legs.

The real trouble, the big blow, happens when Pongo and Perdy return home after an evening out with Roger and Nita to find the bed is empty and the children are nowhere to be found.  It’s every parent’s nightmare to lose their children.  For Pongo and Perdita, the situation just gets worse when news reaches them that their kids have been found, and they are being held prisoner in “the old De Vil 
place”.  The owner turns out to bear a striking resemblance to a former “devoted old schoolmate”.


According to scholar Brian Sibley on the DVD making of documentary: 
“Dodie Smith published The Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1956.  The story was inspired by the fact that she herself had Dalmatian dogs, the first of which was called Pongo.  And a friend of hers, quite casually, and not maliciously, as Cruella de Vil might have said, that…those dogs would make rather a good coat”.

That a Disney film could be inspired by a book is not so remarkable when you consider that half of     the studio’s output comes from ransacking all of the major collected folktales from children’s storybooks around the world.  The remarkable part is when a comparison is made of the finished film with its literary forbearer.  The best way to sum up Dodie Smith’s novel is to call it a study in inspiration underdeveloped and unexplored.  While the basic premise of a family in search of their kidnapped children is remarkably similar in terms of basic setup, it is how Smith handles characters both big and small that reveal the book’s collective weakness.

There are three problems that ultimately harm the original story, and keep it from being more than a minor amusement.  The first is seen by comparing the female lead in both mediums.  In the film version, Perdita is a capable and competent mother, who is able to hold her own in a fight with one of the movie’s antagonists.  In the book, the character is named Missis, and is it wrong to say she comes off as something of a ditz?  I know how that sounds, and yet the overall impression I’m left with is based on how Smith portrays her.  There are times when it’s clear that Missis doesn’t always understand the ramifications of the narrative events, and has to rely on Pongo’s judgments to see her through.  This lack of awareness is best on display in a passage (69 – 72) where the couple are harassed by a young boy trying to pelt them with stones.  The boy is clearly a threat, and yet all Missis is able to take away from the encounter is “Bless me, he’s just a small boy who likes to throw things.  His parents should buy him a ball (72)”.  I don’t believe for a second this dumbing-down effect was intentional on the author’s part.  The problem is it doesn’t prevent Missis from coming off as somewhat simple-minded, and both character and reader have to suffer as a consequence.  If this weren’t enough, Missis in the book is cursed with no sense of direction, even when she can use her sense of smell to tell if someone is coming a mile away.

The second flaw also deals with the writer’s mishandling of her cast.  In this case, it’s the combined duo of the Colonel and Sgt. Tibbs.  While the Colonel retains enough of the same, familiar bluster and old-fashioned sense of duty from the film, it is in his interactions with the Sergeant that the book falls flat once again.  The fact that the regimental Tabby from the book is a girl is not the problem.  Nor is the author’s attempt to mine humor from both characters necessarily the wrong approach.  They were played for laughs in the film, after all.  The trouble is that Mrs. Smith is unable to discover any genuine humor or wit in the characters.

What makes the Colonel and the Sergeant work in the screen adaptation is how they are structured as a basic comedy duo like Laurel and Hardy.  The twist that makes them both stand out is that they are not just there for laughs, but are also professionals who are good at their job.  In a more conventional setup, the Colonel would be portrayed as a clueless buffoon, a clown played for laughs with the Sergeant as the straight-man.  Instead, this trope is neatly inverted in a way that works.

Instead of just being a pair of one-notes played for hollow laughs, both characters are also revealed to be competent soldiers.  The Colonel is a capable leader who knows which of his subordinates to send on a dangerous job, while the Sergeant is just as good at getting into and out of a hostile situation.  It is these minor, yet essential traits that allow each character to remain in the mind long after the final reel.

In contrast to the gruff yet good-natured espirit de corps of the Colonel, or the harried, yet determined professionalism of Tibbs as they are portrayed on-screen, the best Smith can do is have the “Old Boy” have a constant running gag where he’s always forgetting the Sergeant’s name.  The payoff to this joke is the one moment in the entire book that makes me cringe.

All of it brings us to the final problem with the source material, which is the question of tone.  The book has an uneven quality due to the fact that Mrs. Smith can’t seem to make up her mind about just what kind of story she wants to tell.  She seems to have been caught between writing a light-hearted children’s tale, or darker, noir influenced work.  The obvious creative solution would have been to combine both elements into their most natural meeting point, resulting in a successful hybrid work that was suitable for young adults, while also having enough of the feel of a dark, Gothic thriller so that older readers could enjoy the narrative at the same time.

It is a necessary synthesis that Smith seemed incapable of making.  That Disney succeeded where the original author failed points one of the most over-looked skills of Walt as an artist.  Even if the praise heaped on the filmmaker or his studio tends to be over-hyped these days, it still doesn’t change the fact that one of his strong points was to detect the creative potential in an otherwise unremarkable story treatment.  In the case of Dalmatians, Disney was able to take Smith’s lackluster prose and transmute it into some of the darkest and rich poetry ever put on screen.  

In the next post we’ll be ready to jump right in and examine the heart of the film.  We won’t murder to dissect, however I do hope to give you a good look at the elements that, when assembled and put together, turns into the kind of experience you normally don’t expect from the House of Mouse.  The good news, I think, anyway, is that it is an experience worth having.  Join me, won’t you?  Until then, feel free to share your thoughts on this post in the section below.



  1. In some ways, Disney -- and I refer both to the man and to the company of this era -- strikes me as being a bit like Stanley Kubrick in the approach to adaptation. Find source material with a hook that interests you, then feel no obligation whatsoever to treat that source material as anything other than grist for the mill.

    Disney treated the fairy tales and legends he/they adapted with a similarly free hand, of course. I can see how that approach irks some folks, but personally, I think it's a case of the proof being in the pudding. The Disney versions have, almost uniformly, supplanted the originals in people's minds. That doesn't happen unless there's a need for it within the audience.

    In any case, it certainly sounds as if Disney mined all the gold there was to be mined from Dodie Smith's story!

    1. When it comes to the fairy tale adaptations, there is perhaps just a handful of instances where I think more could have been done.

      "Sleeping Beauty could have done a bit more, though the Dragon sequence is awesome, and I wonder how much Don Bluth had to do with that scene (he was an animator for Walt's company at the time).

      Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book just can't hold up to their original, even if Kipling's is rather flawed.

      For the rest, I think he did quite well. I'm dead certain he improved the original "Pinocchio". Blasphemy to some, however I swear the Collodi book has no real plot, and just a string of vinnegets.