Cruella Turns the Despicable Dalmatian Hater Into an Enthralling Antihero
Nobody asked for a Cruella movie. I mean, out of all the villains in Disney’s considerable rogues’ gallery, surely we don’t need an origin story for the wretch who wants to skin puppies for fur coats. Nobody asked for another live-action remake or re-envisioning cash grab like Maleficent.
Cruella is a villain so overtly and unsubtly evil her last name is De Vil. She doesn’t need to be humanized. She was a caricature, a villain with no redeeming qualities created purely to highlight the cruelty of the fur industry. With the demand for fur in steady decline since the ’80s, Cruella isn’t even relevant anymore. In fact, by the end of 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, even her henchmen didn’t want anything to do with her. So no, we didn’t need a Cruella movie. Nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it.
Cruella becomes a multilayered antihero.
Except, it turns out, Cruella is a remarkably good film. Cruella managed to craft a compelling story from the barest of threads, turning a once despicable villain into one of Disney’s best and most multilayered antiheroes.
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Emma Stone’s Cruella pays more of an homage to Glenn Close, who played Cruella in 101 Dalmatians and its sequel, by playing up the fashion aspect. In Cruella, Stone was born Estella, a maladjusted genius with a head of black and white hair, split perfectly down the middle, that she later dyes red to be slightly less conspicuous. Estella is lovable from the get-go, a completely relatable misfit who gets bullied for being different, a square peg hammered down by an unsympathetic headmaster into the round holes of conformity and the patriarchy. The theme continues when she gets work at a department store and is constantly ignored and put down by her supervisor.
Cruella could have very easily leaned in on feminist tropes and demonized the boy bullies and male authority figures but the film is less concerned about Cruella’s struggles as a woman—which were all certainly there—and more interested in telling a compelling story about trauma and loss.
The despicable Baroness contrasts Cruella’s madness.
Estella suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and Cruella is the manifestation of both her genius and her vindictiveness. Cruella’s slow and painful descent into madness is strongly reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer’s transformation from Selina Kyle to Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.
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The trick to making a villain sympathetic and worthy of the viewers’ support is by contrasting her with someone even more despicable and villainous. Enter Emma Thompson as the Baroness, a Miranda Priestly send-up who turns the dial up on devilry while wearing Prada. Both Emmas play off each other so fantastically that Estella’s apprenticeship under the Baroness, who’s an acclaimed fashion designer, could have been a film on its own. Instead, the film takes their relationship further and further from apprenticeship to vicious upstaging to even more dangerous rivalry and surprises.
Cruella reframes the reality of being the loser.
Cruella reinvents Cruella in a way that reframes the entire history of Disney stories. History is written by the victors, and Cruella’s resurgence and revelation as not just a sympathetic character but an unhinged genius deserving of ovation begs the question: What if all the stories Disney has been telling are just the versions of the victors, the so-called good guys? History itself is constantly revealed to simply be curated versions told by—take your pick—white people, men, the rich, or any and all of the above.
What if Disney’s stories have all just been like that? In a world where we have alternative facts and a growing skepticism toward mainstream media, what if all those old stories were just someone’s spin on the story? If one were to view One Hundred and One Dalmatians from that lens, if one were to treat Cruella less as a prequel and more as an alternative or divergent point of view, the film triumphs spectacularly.
Cruella is visually stunning, from costume to cinematography.
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Emma Stone’s Cruella isn’t the chain-smoking hag from the cartoon or even the fur-obsessed fashion maven from the live-action adaptation. This Cruella is the hero we didn’t need, but certainly one that we deserve. She’s an unparalleled fashion design genius whose work actually leaps off the screen, thanks to costume designer Jenny Beavan, who designed the costumes for Mad Max: Fury Road. Beavan has won the Academy Award twice for her costume design (for Mad Max in 2015 and also in 1986 for Room with a View) and deserves all the awards for her work in Cruella.
Few other films that revolve around fashion have actually shown truly memorable fashion. One of Cruella’s most mind-blowing moments revolves specifically around a stunning dress Estella designed and its pure genius. Cruella’s one-upmanship over the Baroness is a testament to the disruptiveness of avant-garde ideas and a meta-commentary on the act of storytelling itself, as Cruella is beautiful and disruptive to the stories that have come before it. One Hundred and One Dalmatians is passé, long live Cruella!
Director Craig Gillespie teams up with his DOP from I, Tonya, Nicolas Karakatsanis, to craft a visually stunning story that’s dark but never heavy. Cruella arguably has the best cinematography of any live-action Disney film. It helps that Cruella is a stunning visual in and of herself, aided by Beavan’s costumes and the character’s iconic hair, but the scenes are so masterfully done with well-considered symmetry that the film comes together beautifully as a whole. Even the soundtrack is replete with perfect songs.
The movie explains Cruella’s animosity toward Dalmatians.
The elephant in the room, or the Dalmatian, in this case, is still the revoltingly inhumane idea that Cruella would skin cute little puppies for their fur. How can any character come back from that? Anyone who goes to great lengths to try and do that is unquestionably irredeemable. Unlike Todd Phillips’ Joker, whose fall from grace is simply an amplified refrain of so many psychopathic terrorists and serial killers, Cruella is a fully cognizant adult who wants to kill puppies as a fashion choice. That’s just messed up.
The film explains Cruella’s animosity toward Dalmatians with a suitably traumatic event and seeds the question about whether or not she skins them to make a coat with enough story elements to almost make it justifiable. It’s not, but you won’t feel entirely monstrous for maybe thinking Cruella could do it and it would be okay. That’s just how good the film is.
Add in some spot-on performances from Cruella’s not quite bumbling henchmen slash family, the perfectly cast Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and you’ve got a new antihero who’s enthralling, disruptive, and revisionist as her fashion. “I am woman,” Cruella quotes Helen Reddy, “hear me roar.” Oh, we hear you, Cruella, we hear you and we’re blown away.