Spoilers are ahead. Once upon a time, Cruella De Ville was a villainous fashion designer who sought to skin puppies to make a single allegedly fabulous coat. But before her evil plan took hold, an old schoolmate named Anita was getting fed up with Cruella’s… eccentricities. In the original animated film, 101 Dalmatians, Anita serves only two purposes: To introduce Cruella, and to shake her head at her husband Roger, when he not-so-facetiously pens the beloved Cruella theme song with such lyrical hits as “This vampire bat / This inhuman beast / She ought to be locked up / And never released.” When Disney launched a remake in 1996, with Glen Close as Cruella, Anita did have a job as a designer for Cruella’s company — however, she vows in the first few minutes of the film that she would leave her job if she got married. Cue her meet-cute with Roger. In 2021’s Cruella, however, this whisper of a woman gets a rewrite: Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Anita Darling is born.
“We've never really seen Anita outside of being a wife and a mother and that's obviously a reality, but a reality that was yet to be explored was who she was before. That's a story that I want to know,” Baptiste recently told Refinery29.
In the new film, in theatres and on Disney+ for a fee, we first meet Anita as a child at Estella’s (Cruella before the angsty name-change) primary school. She’s immediately warm and kind to young Estella who, as the film so bluntly tells us, just doesn’t fit in. Fast forward a few years and Estella’s (Emma Stone) all grown up and launching a fashion feud against premiere fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson). We meet Howell-Baptiste’s adult Anita, pre-Roger and working as a London gossip reporter and photographer. She’s scratching Cruella/Estella’s back by publishing front page stories about all her stunts, and in return, she gets to be the only reporter in London with the inside scoop. Anita is also mounting this whole partnership without a romantic interest or husband, for once.
“I love that you see these women come together or kind of explosively fall apart, but at absolutely no point is that linked to a man or any kind of romantic interest. Everyone [is] kind of fighting tooth and nail to express who they are, and also be recognized for who they are,” Baptiste explained. The actor — largely known for her work on series like Barry, Veronica Mars, Killing Eve, and The Good Place — is stepping into the Disney machine in a big way as Cruella’s ending sets up a clear sequel for the entire crew, including Anita.
By the time we see the post-credits scene, Anita is somehow not fed up with Cruella, but rather amused. In fact, it’s Anita’s old school chum who sets up the meet-cute for her and Roger — played by What We Do In The Shadows star Kayvan Novak — and he’s still smarting from Cruella getting him fired. In the end, Cruella smooths it all over by giving Roger and Anita two dogs: Pongo and Perdita, the future parents of 101 puppies.
Anita’s character details aside, Cruella also makes a crucial improvement on the depiction of London itself, a rich city with a diverse population, known for its blend of cultures and cuisines from all over the world. It’s something you’d never know from the original Dalmatians movies, though the Disney movies were far from the only films to represent London as a city populated only by white residents. The most notorious example is perhaps 1999’s Notting Hill, which effectively erases the British West Indian population of the actual London neighbourhood — an area known for its annual Notting Hill Carnival, which celebrates the city’s Caribbean community — and replaces it with Hugh Grant and an entirely white cast. For Baptiste, who calls London her hometown, Cruella’s commitment to un-white-washing the city was just as monumental as giving Anita an actual story.
“London is such a melting pot and London has always been such an immigrant city. So for me, it was really exciting to see that portrayed, because that is true to the London of the seventies,” said Baptiste, who was born in 1987, but whose family has told her stories from the time. “My grandma moved from the Caribbean to London in the late fifties, early sixties with so many other Caribbean people and there was a lot of Indian immigration and African immigration. So London, particularly at that time, was just so diverse and had so many communities coming together that it was really cool to honour that.”
In fact, Baptiste watched the film for the first time with her mother, who can attest to the real London’s ‘70s vibe. “My mom said it felt like London. I think that's the highest praise you can get — certainly from a Londoner, because British people will tell you like it is.”
And that, as Cruella would say, certainly makes a statement.