Disney’s Cruella is finally streaming on Disney+ Hostar, and it was a movie I was really waiting to see. When the first teasers for a Cruella prequel starring Emma Stone dropped, it was exciting to see Disney revisiting meta-fiction. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, was a great attempt at reimagining a classic Disney film from the villain’s perspective. Cruella tries to do the same as well… but not quite.
Cruella, the puppy-killing, the fur-obsessed villain from the 101 Dalmatians, gets an image reboot in the 2021 prequel. Before watching Cruella, you can’t help but hate the character; a woman who kills puppies for fur coats is as evil as it gets. Cruella tries to change that by making her more sympathetic and explaining her origins.
Spoilers up ahead for Cruella! Watch the film before you come back to this review. You have been warned.
In 101 Dalmatians, we only ever saw the Dalmatians’ side of the story. We were never told why Cruella was the way she was. Why does she skin puppies at all? Why is she so obsessed with fashion? What does she have against Dalmatians? Cruella attempts to answer all these questions by starting at the very beginning.
We are first introduced to Estella, born with her signature black and white hair. As a child, Estella develops a fiery, mean personality that her mother calls ‘Cruella’, even though it’s a result of all the bullying she endures. Her bullies are never punished, but Estella is expelled, and her mom decides to move them to London so Estella can be a fashion designer.
On the way to London, her mother stops at a party to ask an old contact a favor, giving Estella strict instructions not to leave the car. But to nobody’s surprise, she sneaks into the party, drawn by the glamour, and accidentally runs into three Dalmatians that end up killing her mom in a freak accident.
Estella, at this point, is nothing like the Cruella she grows up to be. Far from a puppy hater, she even has a pet dog named buddy. Somehow making her way to London, Estella is adopted by fellow orphans and future henchmen Horace and Jasper. The relationship between Cruella and her henchmen is deeper than anyone could have imagined, since they basically grow up together and think of each other as family.
When Estella is mistreated at the department store, she continues to be kind and sincere, even though her boss treats her like she’s invisible. Estella and Cruella are set up to be as drastically different from each other as they could be; and for a while, this works. After all the screen time devoted to “Sweet Estella”, Cruella’s rebellious cruel persona comes as a surprise, even to her henchmen.
The rivalry between her and the Baroness is fun to watch, and the spectacle of every costume reveal is very exciting. But even as Cruella becomes more and more of a fixture, she becomes the underdog. She is now the mistreated heroine we want to see take down the big bad villain. In its mission to give Cruella a redemption arc, the movie forgets that she was the big bad villain in the first place.
Cruella strays so far away from what we know about the character in 101 Dalmatians that she feels like a brand new character. Horace and Jasper staying by her side until the events of the 101 Dalmatians seems absurd, considering that she only treats them more and more poorly as time goes by. The duo are also far from the bumbling idiots in 101 Dalmatians and work seamlessly to pull off elaborate stunts with apparent ease.
Cruella And Dalmatians!
Cruella’s explanation for the character’s complicated past with Dalmatians comes off as rather weak. Yes, the Dalmatians killed her mother, but Cruella also kidnaps them with no real plan until the Dalmatians become a part of her household. The choice to give her a dog best friend is rather strange too. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that they would never morph into someone obsessed with skinning puppies, so why would Cruella?
But the biggest reason why Cruella feels like a totally different character altogether is the movie’s refusal to acknowledge its darker themes that were already canon in 101 Dalmatians. When the Baroness exclaims, “She make a coat out of my Dalmatians!”, a chill went down my spine. I thought, this is it – this is the point where Cruella because the kind of person who would kill dogs to make a statement. Here is the force of evil we know she becomes.
But then the movie backpedals on its own jaw-dropping reveal, and it turns out that she didn’t actually kill the dogs. The movie tries so desperately to maintain Estella/Cruella as a sympathetic character that it forgets to acknowledge her transition into the Cruella from 101 Dalmatians. The audience has no mixed feelings when she gets the Baroness arrested for Estella’s murder or when she takes over the estate, because, according to this movie, it was Cruella’s rightfully earned victory.
Herein lies the dilemma that comes with trying to redeem villains. It’s easier to tell the villain’s side of the story when we never knew much about them in the first place. This works for Maleficent, because not a great deal is known about her intentions, or how King Stefan slighted her in the first place.
But with Cruella, we know exactly why she does what she does. Cruella wants fur at any cost, even if she has to kill puppies for it. A textbook narcissist, Cruella is so single-minded in her pursuit of what she wants that she doesn’t care about the consequences. From the beginning, it was clear that Cruella was never misunderstood; the only question was why she was the way she was.
While the film had a great chance to answer that question, they ultimately squandered it. In their mission to make a likable protagonist, Disney forgot that their protagonist was possibly the most despicable and purely evil Disney villain to exist. Of course, the film can still be read as achieving this goal and explaining Cruella’s origins. But its reluctance to associate itself with the truly dark side of Cruella, the one that’s genuinely cruel and not just snarky in a punk-rock way, ultimately meant that Cruella (2021) would only ever be a pale imitation.