Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, aside from being the Disney movie with the most underrated male lead…
(You can sit tight and gaze for a minute. I’ll wait.)
…was also based on a 1956 book by English writer Dodie Smith, who is otherwise best known for her delightful 1949 coming-of-age novel I Capture the Castle. Less well-known than either of those two books is her 1967 101 Dalmatians sequel, The Starlight Barking, which Disney never touched with a ten-foot pole, because it is fucking bizarre.
I’ve never seen Disney’s 102 Dalmatians, but I doubt it has any similarity to Smith’s chosen continuation of the story of Pongo and Perdita (named “Missus” in the book, which had a different Perdita character), unless Disney was fond of flying dogs with psychic powers and the ability to bend the physical world to their whim. Oh, and the Cold War.
The plot of Starlight Barking goes like this: Pongo wakes up to discover that every creature on Earth that isn’t a dog—humans, cats, insects, birds (even, for a dash of whimsy, the wind)—has fallen into a mysterious sleep from which they cannot be woken. Further, dogs now have power to psychically communicate with each other and can zoom along using the power of thought—it’s called “swooshing,” and yes Smith does use the term “Hover-dogs.” (There’s a “Hover-tractor,” too. Don’t think about it too much.)
Further, dogs can make things in the physical world work just by wishing that they would—doors opening, traffic lights turning on, that sort of thing—and they never get hungry, thirsty, or tired. It’s some real The Secret bullshit. They also feel strangely docile, Pongo remarking at one point that “there are hundreds—no, thousands—of dogs crowded together. But I have not heard one dog-fight.”
If you think this sounds like the beginning of a canine dystopian horror thriller, just you wait.
It turns out the cause of all this is the dogstar, Sirius…who is a real dog, made of energy or some shit. Being the only giant space dog with magical mind powers, what the fuck, he’s a bit lonely, so he’s been creeping on Earth’s dogs since the beginning of time. “I have always loved them and wished they could be with me on my lonely star,” he tells every dog on the planet. “But never in the past did I feel I had the right to entice them away from the Earth.”
Now, though, he does feel justified in coming down from Dog Heaven and asking all the dogs if they want to be beamed up, because humans have nukes and are going to blow everything up soon. I shit you not:
“For soon, through human foolishness, there may be no Earth—or no Earth as you know it now. And those few of you who survive will be desperate, starving wretches, fighting each other, eating each other, just in order to go on living a life that isn’t worth living. Do you understand?
Honestly, what children’s book shouldn’t give young minds a lesson in mutually assured destruction? From the dog Prime Minister:
“You mean that humans may some day destroy the Earth with terrible bombs, in a terrible war. I know some humans believe that—but not all humans, and none of them want it to happen. And I don’t believe it will. Why, the angriest dog in the world would not want to destroy all dogs—and itself—in order to win a fight. It wouldn’t make sense.” “Well, it wouldn’t make sense to a dog,” said Sirius. “But dogs won’t have any say in the matter. And neither will most humans. Oh, it may never happen. You’re right in saying no one wants it to. But there is a risk.”
Gawrsh, the sixties!
In order to convince the dogs to come with him, he gives them a taste of perfect bliss (“Pongo had never known such happiness. It was like food to the hungry, warmth to the shivering, love to the lonely.”) followed by perfect terror. One dog wonders later whether maaaybe it’s a little fucked up that Sirius has the power to control the emotions of all dogs, en masse—maybe he’s not entirely trustworthy? Maybe it’s a little weird that this space dog is a pusher of emotional crack who can make millions of dogs feel whatever he wants at any given moment? But then they decide, no, Sirius is chill. He’s just lonely.
Even more screwed up is that two cats and a human boy wake up, because they were granted “honorary dog” status in the first book. Sirius offers to take them up to the dogstar, too. The cats say no, but the kid—who’s a toddler and is therefore too young to know better—says yes. And everyone just goes with it, like, yep, if the majority of us vote to go to outer space, the kid’s coming too! In space! Forever! Which is long past when the idea of living on a planet with all dogs and no humans stops being cool and starts being awful. I could live that way for a decade. Two, max.
And what about the kid’s parents? Well, if the dogs decide to go, the humans will wake up—though it’s worth noting that Sirius floats the idea of letting them sleep forever, which isn’t horrifying at all—with no memory of dogs ever having existed (that monster). So it makes logical sense that he would have pulled a Hermione on the kid’s parents, too, and erased all their memories of him.
Eventually, the dogs decide not to go with Sirius, because their humans need them and because complete bliss, though it’s great for a while, stops being so special when you experience it all the time. (BOW BEFORE YOUR ALIEN BRAIN LORD, MAGGOTS. BOW FOR YOUR SLICE OF BLISS TO NUMB THE PAIN.) Still, bliss is waiting for them—“Perhaps one day, Sirius, we shall be ready to join you and accept bliss. But not yet. You see, we do have quite a lot of bliss already.”
Ahhh. A freaky, dictatorial space dog with psychic powers and heavy Messianic subtext. Except, instead of crucifying Dog Jesus, Pongo and pals tell him to please go back to heaven and they’ll catch him later. That’s nice.
At one point, all the dogs are rushing from London back to their home in the country, and Pongo knows they’ve accidentally left their stupidest kid behind, but he actively tries to stop his wife from noticing, because chop chop, they’re on a deadline, and the little fucker will just figure out how to get home himself. There’s this weird bit where Sirius drops an existential truth bomb and tells the dogs “Uhhh, you know humans own you and not the other way around, right?,” and all the dogs are just like “Pssht, whatever.” Pongo keeps quoting Prime Minster H.H. Asquith. It is a severely weird book, and it needs to be twelve movies.