Disney certainly hasn’t been shy about developing 101 Dalmatians into a full-fledged, decades-spanning franchise. The 1961 animated feature was a huge box-office success at a time when the company needed one, and Disney has returned multiple times for sequels, reboots and new variations. That includes a direct-to-video sequel in 2003, a live-action 1996 remake starring Glenn Close that itself spawned a sequel and a pair of television series, and, most recently, a prequel starring Emma Stone. That’s a lot of content, and Disney certainly doesn’t look to change a brand that works.
It may seem odd, but none of those projects touched upon the true sequel. Author Dodie Smith, who wrote the 1956 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, penned a follow-up in 1967 called The Starlight Barking. Disney’s steady mining of the source material prompts the question of why the studio hasn't adapted The Starlight Barking. As it turns out, the novel may just be too bizarre.
The original animated feature appeared while Disney was shifting away from fairy-tale adaptations and toward more contemporary children’s stories. 101 Dalmatians was released in early 1961, amid the likes of Swiss Family Robinson and The Parent Trap, and just a few years before Mary Poppins. The Starlight Barking was published in 1967, well after the success of the animated adaptation of the original novel, and with a considerable pop-culture cache in its corner. However, the sequel novel took the story in what can only be described as unexpected directions.
The Starlight Barking picks up shortly after the first book ends. The dogs of the world wake up one morning to find every living being on Earth who isn’t of their species fallen into a mysterious sleep. Furthermore, no dog needs to eat or sleep, and all of them can now fly and communicate telepathically with each other over great distances. They set up a government in London – led by Cadpig, one of the Dalmatian puppies from the first novel who had since been adopted by the human Prime Minister – to find the cause of the phenomenon. That’s when it gets really weird.
A voice on the television orders the world’s dogs to be outdoors by midnight. At that hour, a dog from outer space appears – Sirius, king of the Dog Star – and offers to take all of them back to his home planet. He is lonely, and fears for the fate of his kind if the Earth is destroyed by nuclear war. After careful consideration, Pongo and the rest of the Earth dogs decide to remain with their human owners, whom they would miss too much. Sirius accepts their decision, and departs after removing the dogs’ powers and sending them home in time for their owners to wake.
As strange as it is, Disney has made movies out of weirder concepts. Indeed, 1978’s The Cat from Outer Space is close enough conceptually to make an adaptation of The Starlight Barking feasible, if ill-advised. The connection to 101 Dalmatians, however, might have been a step too far. The original animated feature went to great lengths to convey a specific tone for its London, and dogs from outer space simply had no place in it. Furthermore, The Starlight Barking is very clearly a product of its time – with its fears of nuclear war and emphasis on science fiction in the midst of the Apollo missions – which hasn’t aged nearly as well as The One Hundred and One Dalmatians has.
Perhaps most telling, however, is the absence of the franchise’s real star. Cruella De Vil spends The Starlight Barking asleep with the rest of humanity, but apparently has been cured of her fur fixation. That makes for a gentler story, but also removes the real selling point. Disney wisely kept the attention on her for its various reboots, leaving The Starlight Barking a very odd outlier in a series that has gone in a much different direction. In this case, that’s likely for the best.
KEEP READING: Cruella's Ending, & How It Connects to 101 Dalmatians, Explained
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