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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Based on a Story By...

They’re letting me ramble about animated films today! You guys are in trouble.

My cohorts here at The Lone Book Club know I love animation, particularly the old-school variety. I grew up on beautifully-rendered, Disney-spun tales like many of you did, I’m sure. And as we all know, Disney has a special talent for taking an existing story and running wild with it. Many of the classic animated films feature the line “based on a story by” in the credits - in some cases that phrase is applied more loosely than others. We all know the darker origins of classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and popular book adaptations like Peter Pan and The Jungle Book. Today I’m looking at a few of my favorite Disney films and digging up their lesser known origins.
Dumbo, that classic tale of a baby elephant with large ears separated from his mother and mistreated by the rest of the circus, is reportedly based on Dumbo the Flying Elephant, a story written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. This story didn’t appear in a traditional book however; rather, it was for a toy called a Roll-A-Book. The Roll-A-Book was a unique contraption that held several illustrations on a scroll inside of a box, and a knob was turned to move between illustrations. At some point the story was published in book format, but sadly very few copies, and possibly none of the Roll-A-Book, exist today. Dumbo the Flying Elephant was a rather simple tale in comparison to the source material for other Disney features, which allowed the artists a lot of room to play. What resulted was, as Walt Disney put it, a pretty fun movie to make. If you’d like to know more Helen Aberson and Dumbo, Wade Sampson at Jim Hill Media has two wonderful columns about them.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for quite some time but have not gotten around to it. Disney’s spotted dog caper is based on the novel by Dodie Smith (who was also a screenwriter, playwright and actor). The film stays rather close to the plot of the novel with some notable exceptions. Perdita is not the mother of the puppies, but a stray that the Dearlys take in as a wetnurse (“perdita” means “lost” *wipes tear*). Also, Roger is a “financial wizard,” not a musician. As a kid, my friends and I speculated as to which pup was the one that dies and is revived by Roger. Was it Rolly, the whiner, or Lucky, who’s named… well, Lucky? Turns out in the book the pup is Cadpig (“cad” was once used to refer to the runt in a litter of pigs, hence “Cadpig”). Presumably Cadpig is not in the cast of the animated film, but she is one of the main characters in 101 Dalmatians: The Series.

There is a sequel to this book, and no, it’s not Patch’s London Adventure. The Starlight Barking picks up the story some years later and features fantasy elements.

Next we come to The Fox and the Hound… which I must confess was the inspiration for this post, as I’ve actually read the book. Based on the novel by Daniel P. Mannix, Disney’s film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a fox and a hound, and the mischief their relationship gets them into. Upon cracking open a copy of the original version, I was surprised to learn that Copper and Tod were never friends; they were enemies from the moment they met! Mannix’s tale is one of survival, chronicling the bitter, years-long war between hunter, dog, and fox in a steadily urbanizing world. Mannix put a great deal of research and study into the behavior of foxes and hunting techniques; the book shows off several, including trapping, still hunting, mounted hunters and a pack of dogs, and coursing with greyhounds. Tod evades them all, and in the end it comes down to a chase against his old nemesis.

It’s a compelling, heartbreaking, somewhat traumatizing story. I highly recommend it!

Finally we have that great eighties film about tiny heroes accomplishing phenomenal feats, based on the series of books by Margery Sharp. It appears that in the original series, Bianca is the main character, while Bernard is her trusty sidekick; in the film these roles are reversed and the story is seen largely from Bernard's point of view. We also get a bit more backstory to explain Bianca’s humanitarian exploits. She is the pet of an ambassador’s son and a member of the Prisoner’s Aid Society; mice, it’s explained, are friends of prisoners in dungeons and jail cells the world over. Much like the film, the books follow the adventures of Miss Bianca, Bernard, and their intrepid rodent friends, though the first prisoner they rescue is a Norwegian poet, presumably an adult. It looks like the inspiration for Penny probably came from the sequels. According to Wikipedia there are nine books in the series, though the only one with a summary is Bernard the Brave.

This is just a sampling of the vast sampling of literature featured in Disney's animated classics. While many of Disney's movies are wonderful in their own right, I value the ones that have introduced me to authors and stories I would not have known about otherwise. I don't know about you, but it looks like I have some reading to do!

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