“Imamura thought that Western, and especially American, animated films had a mythic quality to them and that their power lay in the ability to teach by metaphor. Imamura compared the power of Disney films to ancient Greek fables and held the genre in high esteem.”
When Disney’s first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, debuted in 1937, the entire world took notice of America’s newfound cinematic marvel. More so than the unprecedented proficiency of Disney’s animation, political leaders across the globe recognised the unique form of storytelling and didactic power that the film contained. With countries on the precipice of World War II, the film industry had become a fervent battleground for the political winning of hearts and minds, as an ideological war preceded the material war to come. Films were duly recognised as potent tools for their ability to construct reality in their narrative and so affect their audience’s perception of real-world affairs. Imamura Tahei’s A Theory of Animated Film (1941) resulted from its author living through the film war between Imperial Japan and the United States of America, which took place within the Asian sphere of popular culture during the 1930s. It entailed multiple threats, embargoes, ultimatums, and of course unfavourable portrayal of the “enemy” across the Pacific. Even Joseph Goebbels, head of Nazi propaganda, recognised the value of the animated narrative in achieving political ends .
Japan entered the animation war with Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro’s Sea Eagles (Momotaro no Umiwashi) in 1943, followed by the sequel, Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (Momotaro: Umi no Shinpei) in 1945. Being released six and seven years respectively after Snow White the Momotaro films were competing within a genre which the Americans, specifically Walt Disney Studios, had already begun to dominate. Effectively Disney had written the textbook on animation, and Seo had to translate out the ingrained Americanism of the genre and produce films catering to the sensibilities (and ideological desires) of the Empire of Japan. Perhaps even more so, the framing medium of cinema within which Seo worked, was itself already an intrinsically Western art form, due to its genesis usually being accredited to the Lumière brothers in 1895, and while there are contradicting studies, such as The First Film (2015), which asserts Louis Le Prince was the true inventor of the motion picture in 1888, there are none which place the birth of film outside of the Western hemisphere. Moreover, the early titans of film, such as George Meliès and D. W. Griffith, firmly established the West (America and Europe) as the furtive seat of cinematic creation.
Likewise, America quickly established itself as the blueprint for how to create an animated film during the late 1930s and early 1940s. While Snow White undoubtedly announced the wonders of the genre to the world, Mitsuyo Seo’s Momotaro movies are more inspired by the films immediately preceding Disney’s premiere features, such as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). Momotaro is notable for its employment of anthropomorphic animals (serving as naval or airborne soldiers in the Japanese army) as its characters, a decision by Seo which reflects the way in which Disney quickly recognised the appeal and power of giving everyday animals human traits, mannerisms, and even voices. Thus, the dapper Jiminy Cricket, the flying Dumbo, the innocent Bambi, and the famous entourage of Disney regulars (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy etc.) were created and managed to capture the public’s collective imagination.
However, this predilection to personify animals was not innovated along with the birth of the animated film, although arguably Disney’s progress with animating cartoons enabled the effective expression of anthropomorphism. We can, for example, trace anthropomorphism back to the moralising fables of Aesop, such as The Hare and the Tortoise, or The Fox and the Crow. Each instils animals with human speech, emotions, thoughts, and manners, and thus perpetrates a fiction which points to the truth (or rather, the truth as the author sees it). Using such deeply fictional content, yet relating it to concrete humanity, is the foundation upon which anthropomorphic animals can teach by metaphor. Aesop is no doubt who Imamura had in mind when Snow White burst onto the scene in 1937. Of course, he is referring to the potency of all animated films to practice metaphor, however, as both Disney and Japan soon realised in the early 1940s, the portrayal of the human-as-animal holds special appeal, and so began to dominate the animated catalogue. It was established as more prosperous in both representing human nature, and providing moral lessons.
Why, then, is this the case? It would certainly seem curious that Mickey Mouse would connect emotionally with an audience more than Snow White, despite the latter’s total manifestation of humanity, and the former’s possession of only the psychology—Mickey’s anatomy is only vaguely human. Undoubtedly, as World War II came to an end and Walt Disney Studios proceeded to dominate internationally, this question was allowed more detailed analysis. In 1961, Disney released the acclaimed 101 Dalmatians, a landmark of animation and a pivotal touchstone in the narrative use of anthropomorphic animals. The film details the lives of Roger Radcliffe and his pet dalmatian, Pongo, whose respective romances with Anita and her pet dalmatian, Perdita, are thrown into turmoil by the completely villainous Cruella De Vil’s kidnapping of Perdita’s litter of fifteen. De Vil, of course, wants the puppies so that she may tailor a new fur coat consisting of the pelts of the eponymous one hundred and one Dalmatians. Her plan is thwarted through the tenacity of wide variety of anthropomorphised creatures from the animal kingdom.
The film stands out among the Disney catalogue as one of the company’s most successful commercial and creative ventures—the prodigious work of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” animation team in fact saved its animation department after the box-office flop of Sleeping Beauty in 1959. However, while the entirety of the film’s plot still stands up today, the one sequence perhaps most crucial to remember is at the very beginning.
It is a simplistic scene, merely setting up the film’s romantic motivation, which serves as the catalyst for the film’s main narrative arc. Roger is playing the piano in his London flat as Pongo, given a human voice, talks to the audience in voiceover. Desiring a partner for himself and for Roger, whom he refers to as his “pet” in an amusing role reversal, Pongo gazes out the window at the numerous passers-by, his own kind of window-shopping. With Roger’s accompanying piano as a calming soundtrack, the film opens to a truly mellow, relaxed atmosphere.
Pongo observes the pedestrians as they pass by, each with their own pet dog, and his commentary is deliberately designed to apply to both owner and pet, they all appear as reflections of each other—for example, the upper-class lady and her poodle are both of the “fancy” breed. Eventually, Pongo spies Anita and Perdita, and the plot begins, but what this opening montage establishes is 101 Dalmatians’ attitude towards anthropomorphism, and its recognition of how it operates as a narrative device.
Central to the idea of anthropomorphism is the natural human tendency to assign human characteristics to non-human entities, as we do perhaps most commonly with animals, thus the prolific status of characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. 101 Dalmatians is clearly playing with this notion in its first scene, comedically illustrating owners and pets as mirror images of each other. This is important in that it sets up the core narrative technique of the film, our emotional attachment to Pongo, Perdita, and the litter of puppies (each given characterisation)—even more so than Roger and Anita—as they struggle against the evil plot of Cruella De Vil. The film knowingly plays with this notion in how, for example, Pongo and Roger exhibit identical emotions or reactions, or when Cruella covers Roger in ink spots, emphasising the likeness between himself and his spotted pet.
Ultimately, what 101 Dalmatians achieves in its narrative technique is a compelling, engaging cast of characters and one of Disney’s best-loved stories. More than that, however, it seeks to reverse the atmosphere of enmity and prejudice which proliferated the years leading up to and including World War II, wherein animation entered the world stage, and films such as Momotaro used the device of anthropomorphic animals to promote nationalism and war fervour.
Likewise, Disney produced features such as Donald Gets Drafted in 1942 and Der Fuhrer’s Face in 1943 as war propaganda starring Donald Duck. Undoubtedly animation proved its worth during the war, however 101 Dalmatians seeks to extract the method which made these wartime films so effective: their use of animals as points of human empathy, and substitute the content of military aggression and political opposition in favour of a more constructive message. 101 Dalmatians is instead primarily concerned with notions of the class system within 1960s society. Cruella De Vil cuts a bona fide aristocrat, representative of an evil upper class, while the initial bachelor Roger, in his successful romance with Anita, instructs the audience in the traditional, and supposed, benefits of love and marriage within the class system. De Vil’s lackeys, the Badun brothers, embody an exploited poor who are used by the rich, as well as the problematic relationship between poverty and a life of crime.
Anthropomorphic animals are tremendously valuable tools in engaging an audience for the fact that they specifically encourage empathy on a psychological level. They force us to treat animals, who we might treat differently otherwise, as psychological equals imbued with the essence of humanity. The film self-consciously references this aspect of its narrative makeup when the Dalmatian family are watching the television. Shown on the screen is the character of “Thunderbolt”, an anthropomorphic dog himself, chasing a human villain in a Western-style setting. The young puppies are invested in the spectacle, hoping for Thunderbolt’s success and fearing his demise, to the point that they all begin barking as the battle between hero and villain reaches a critical moment.
The film is, of course, self-referencing its own rapport with the audience by demonstrating the puppies’ admiration of their hero Thunderbolt. In the same way, the film itself established an empathic link between the audience and the Dalmatians. As such, Cruella De Vil’s plan to skin the puppies to tailor herself a fur coat not only offends us morally, but becomes a twisted kind of anthropomorphism itself. Instead of sympathising with the innocence and emotions of the Dalmatians as we do, Cruella wishes physically to wear their skin, embodying the ruthless indifference of capitalism and greed, while providing a morbid inversion of the human-animal empathy on which 101 Dalmatians is founded.
The class metaphor is perhaps most strongly expressed in the way Pongo and Perdita manage to locate their children and foil Cruella’s plans, using a network of dogs across the country to perform reconnaissance. This effectively expands the film’s parameters to showcase an entire anthropomorphic society, engaged in communication and in solidarity. This is 101 Dalmatians’ lasting message. The film forces us to reconsider what makes us human in its very humanisation of animals. In the aftermath of World War II, such a message held contemporary importance given the division and horrors of the war, wherein whole countries (such as Japan and America, or Britain and Germany) sought to alienate other peoples psychologically within their respective cultures, and moreover, entire peoples were radically dehumanised and discriminated against, most prominently with Nazi Germany’s attempted genocide of Jewish people through the Holocaust. In this way, 101 Dalmatians does indeed possess a somewhat mythic quality in its simplicity.
Like Aesop, Disney undoubtedly provide a commentary on the benefits and ills of the class system, but the film’s self-aware deconstruction of the anthropomorphic animal is what truly sets it apart, and claims it a significant position in Disney’s history. It is in many ways a note of reflection on the beginnings of animation, and seeks to progress beyond them, eschewing the discord and aggression which proliferated animated ventures during the war, and instead choosing to encourage empathy and a thoughtful re-examination of human nature. The titular one hundred and one Dalmatians, who come to live together at the film’s ending, symbolise this. The fact that the animators give many of the puppies specific traits and appearances, as opposed to rendering them all indistinguishable, while emphasising the erratic patterns of each puppy’s spots (such as Patch), encapsulates the film’s desire for inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.
 Michael Baskett. The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan, (Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, 2008): 50