Warning: Major spoilers ahead. How do you solve a problem like Cruella? It’s a question that’s been rolling around in my head ever since Disney announced a standalone live action film depicting the early days of 101 Dalmatians’ villain as a young fashion designer coming of age in 1970s London. More specifically, how do you make family-friendly entertainment sympathizing with someone who’s only stated purpose is to kidnap, murder, and skin puppies? The simple answer is...you just don’t. Cruella certainly winks at what we think we know about the character — make sure to stay for the end credits scene — but it also cops out of actually having to explain her later actions, implying that we may have been wrong about her all along. Basically, if you were coming to Cruella hoping to better understand the demonic persona immortalized by Glenn Close in the 1996 movie, you will likely come out confused.
In the Craig Gillespie-directed movie, Cruella’s real name is Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland as a child and Emma Stone as an adult). Her mother gives her the nickname Cruella because of her rebellious ways. When she’s kicked out of school for raging against the machine, Estella and mom head to London to start a new life. On the way though, they stop at Hellman Hall, home to the infamous Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), fashion designer and all around terror, to ask for funds. It’s unclear at that point what the connection is between the two families (a later twist reveals it). What is important is that while her mother meets with the Baroness, Estella sneaks into the mansion, where she comes face to face with her first fashion show. It’s love at first sight — until a trio of vicious Dalmatians run her out of the building. Estella hides to escape them, and succeeds. But the dogs, having lost their prey, focus on a new one: her mother. They rush her, and she falls off a cliff to her death.
At this point, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking, Ohhhhh, okayyy. Cruella just wants revenge against the animals that killed her mother. It’s a basic plot, but one that any Marvel fan has been conditioned to respond to: Misfit child loses a parent in a violent event they believe to be their fault, triggering a life dedicated to avenging them.
For a while, Cruella does appear to be going down that road. Estella travels to London, meets Jasper (played by Ziggy Gardner, then Joel Fry) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald, then Paul Walther-Hauser), joins their gang of petty thieves, and dreams of starting her own fashion house. A menial job at House of Liberty department store leads her to be noticed by the Baroness, and for a while, things are looking up. Until suddenly, Estella’s memory is triggered: She didn’t kill her mother — the Baroness, whose whistle called the dogs on her, is the one truly responsible. Thus, Cruella is born, a fashion rival bent on destroying everything the Baroness has built.
First order of business? Get Horace and Jasper to kidnap the Baroness’ three beloved Dalmatians, a move that certainly harkens back to 101 Dalmatians. But this is where things get a little muddled. Cruella does a bait and switch with the dog content. First of all, the movie establishes fairly early on that though Estella does blame the Dalmatians for killing her mother, she actually loves dogs. After all, her best friend is a kind stray named Buddy, and Horace’s pet chihuahua, Tink, is an integral part of the gang’s crime operation. But then there’s the grand showpiece, in which Cruella stages a guerilla fashion show to the tune of Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Want To Be Your Dog” (in a Disney movie...punk is dead), and appears in a coat that appears to be made entirely of Dalmatian fur. We, like the Baroness, are meant to believe that she killed the three pooches — terrible yes, but on brand. And I have to say, for a second, I admired Gillespie’s — not to mention writers Tony McNamara and Dana Fox — guts. To have a Disney protagonist not only kill dogs, but gleefully wear them with such panache? Simply outrageous.
Thankfully for the dogs, but regretfully for the plot, Cruella reveals that the coat is made of synthetic fur. This makes her a more palatable character to root for, but it completely retcons the very premise of 101 Dalmatians. It’s all right there in her name! She’s a cruel devil with a single objective: Obtaining a fur coat made out of that black-and=white fur she so covets. But this is a Disney movie, and one has to root for the protagonist. Which begs a truly existential question: Can an antagonist ever really be the protagonist without losing what made them antagonizing?
Therein lies the weakness of origin stories: Often, what makes a character interesting is precisely the mystique surrounding their background. An example I think of often is Obi-Wan Kenobi mentioning “the Clone Wars” in Star Wars: A New Hope. It sounds mythical, part of a backstory that we can only guess at. That kind of allusion to a major event is an integral part of world-building; it drops the viewer in a place with its own histories and references. But when you actually see that conflict depicted in Attack of the Clones, it falls completely flat. Really...this? Likewise, Joker’s weakness was in trying to attribute motive to a character whose sole purpose is chaos. Some things do not need to be explained. (As I write this, Timothée Chalamet has just been cast in an origin story about Willy Wonka, to which I can only say, enough.) Still, as Disney found out with 2014’s Maleficient, villain IP is lucrative. The Angelina Jolie-starring movie centered around Sleeping Beauty's dreaded sorceress grossed $758 million world-wide, more than tripling its estimated $200 million budget.
But if you’re going to make an origin story, it should at the very least illuminate something about the character. By the end of the Cruella, we’ve gotten all the expected “origin story” moments: the dual-toned hair, the “did you know this is called a Devil?” car, the Roger (Kayvan Novack) and Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) cameos. But the thing that actually requires a Cruella De Vil in the first place — that is, the action that makes her relevant to the story — is absent.
This is all made even more confusing by the end credits scene, which shows Roger, formerly the Baroness’ lawyer, at his piano singing the initial bars of Cruella’s theme song ("Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil. If she doesn't scare you, no evil thing will..."). The doorbell rings, and a box containing a Dalmatian puppy named Pongo arrives on Roger’s doorstep. Likewise, Anita, who in this adaptation is a gossip journalist and Cruella’s childhood friend, receives a puppy called Perdita. Since Cruella kept the Baroness’ dogs, I can only surmise that these puppies are their offspring. But while this does effectively leave room for a sequel, it does nothing to explain why Cruella would later want to murder the children of the dogs she has just gifted to her friends! In fact, why even call this movie Cruella? One could easily envision a movie about an aspiring fashion designer, played by Stone, who spars with a turban-wearing Thompson. Most of Cruella does actually revolve around this dynamic, and you know what? Those scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Does Cruella really explain how a woman was born brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad? Not really. But if you’re looking to spend a little over two hours in a Devil Wears Prada-like dance between two quite fabulous Emmas, then step right up. This one’s for you.