I’ll confess that this movie has never been one of my favourites. It’s the dogs, you see. There’s a cat, and that cat is frankly smarter than the dog he lives with, but it is very much a dog story. And, okay, that’s fine. Dog stories are allowed. It’s just that cat people can get awfully tired of them. You can tell there are more dog stories told by just thinking about all the dog movies just from Disney, and while they’ve also done a couple of cat movies, they have done literally a couple of cat movies. There are more Disney feline villains.
Ahem. Anyway. Pongo (Rod Taylor) manages to hook his “pet,” Roger (Ben Wright), up with Anita (Lisa Davis), herself the pet of Perdita (Cate Bauer). Oh. Pongo and Perdita are the dogs. Anyway, they get their pets married, and then they themselves have puppies. Fifteen of them. Perdita’s old school friend, Cruella DeVil (Betty Lou Gerson), insists that she will buy the puppies, but Roger manages to refuse her. So she arranges to have them stolen. It turns out she’s acquiring dalmatians from all over the UK to make into dogskin coats.
I’m okay with the whole Twilight Bark thing. Okay, dogs can talk to other dogs; you’re just going to have to accept that if we’re going to have dogs as our main characters. But it then falls into the thing that irritates me about most Talking Animal stories, where all the animals can talk to one another. I have logistical problems with this. We mostly see dogs talking to one another, but there’s also Sergeant Tibbs (Dave Frankham) the cat, and there is Captain (Thurl Ravenscroft) the horse, and there are cows. Presumably there’d be even more species than that, if they were in spring or summer instead of winter. But the point is, horses and cows are prey species and dogs and cats are predator species, and that has always felt uncomfortable to me.
Sure, a cat isn’t going to kill and eat a horse, but that isn’t the point, is it? And, yes, I’m irritated by Paw Patrol because the dogs, and only the dogs, talk to humans—but that’s it, isn’t it? They talk to humans. If the dogs talked to each other and not the humans, that would be different. But the dogs there talk to the humans and are the only animals that do, and that’s definitely a Dog Person thing. Here, if the dogs only talked to each other, and the cats and horses and cows and things didn’t talk to the dogs, it wouldn’t make me start wondering how the animals ate animals they could talk to. You have to admit it’s a weird concept.
Dodie Smith, author of the original book, was kind of an anti-P. L. Travers. She was delighted when Walt bought the rights to her book. She informed Bill Peet that he made all kinds of improvements to her story, when she got his outline. I’ve never read the book, though I do remember hearing an audio book of it as a child, or at least I remember part of it (a meal where Cruella and her husband, who exists in the book, put a lot of pepper on their food). But what I don’t know is if the book gives more plot to any of the not-Cruella female characters. Probably not; Perdita in the book is a stray dog they acquire to serve as a wet nurse, and the puppies’ mother doesn’t get her own name.
We actually have two fewer female characters in the movie; both Roger and Anita have their own childhood nurses, and there’s only one nanny (Martha Wentworth) in the movie. But Anita gets lines but not much to do. Nanny tries to stop Horace (Frederick Worlock) and Jasper (J. Pat O’Malley), but that’s about it. Perdita is there for the whole attempt to get the puppies back, sure, but the actual barking is Pongo’s, as are pretty well all the ideas. The rest of the characters, with the exception of the cows and some of the puppies—and of course Cruella—are all male. Even all the dogs they encounter.
Also, you know, there’s the bit at the beginning, where Pongo is picking out a wife for Roger. I get that it’s a common joke that people and their dogs look alike—even though it’s not my personal experience even a little—but it does also mean that most of the women rejected because they have the wrong dogs are also rejected by the audience because, mostly, of their own appearances. Not exclusively—there is a literal child with a literal puppy—but yeah.
Now, I am not the only person certain that this was a movie that needed to be talked about for Year of the Month this month. Our own Anthony Pizzo has claimed it—with my approval and encouragement—for the fifteenth. I can promise you he’ll be talking about different things than I have, and I encourage you to check out what he has to say. (Yes, we’ve been in communication about it, but that’s because each one of us finds the other we can talk Disney with most easily, without having to go back and explain a lot of things.) I will also say that next week in this space will be a second Year of the Month entry!