Cruella: How It Deals with the Villain’s 101 Dalmatians Obsession

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This article contains Cruella spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review here.

It’s rare to have a movie as focus-tested and committee-approved as Disney’s Cruella surprise you. But in my case, it did. Filled with vamping swagger and fabulous charm, this reimagining legitimately does something fresh with its premise, and broke down my curmudgeonly skepticism toward a Cruella de Vil origin story in the process. Dodging the boring impulse to just remake 101 Dalmatians (which Disney already did once in 1996), this is an eccentric blend of heist movie twists, 1970s decadence, and even shades of All About Eve. Genuinely, it’s a narrative where an upstart ingénue tries to replace a legend, with Emma Stone transforming herself into Emma Thompson.

Yet where the movie does ultimately struggle, like so many villain origin stories before it, is ironically in its concessions to its source material. Once again we have a prequel that appears strangely obligated to rationalize or explain all of a fiend’s villainy, which means giving an allegedly deeper rationale for Cruella de Vil’s desire to skin 99 Dalmatian puppies and turn them into a fur coat. While Cruella stops just short before those events unfold, it still makes a half-hearted attempt to justify the unjustifiable—or at least reference it. In many ways, it is Cruella’s status as a prequel that becomes its lone major stumble.

This is most apparent in the film’s belabored prologue where we meet the girl who would become Cruella, Estella (Tipper Seirfert-Cleveland), at a young age. Estella is a bit of a wild child when her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) takes her to the annual ball hosted by the cold as ice, but otherwise divinely dressed, Baroness (Thompson).

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It is there the movie arbitrarily suggests Cruella de Vil’s eventual obsession with Dalmatians is because that breed of dog was used as a literal murder weapon in the death of her mother. That’s right, in Cruella, we learn that Dalmatians killed Cruella’s mama when they jumped on Catherine (at the Baroness’ behest) and pushed her over a cliff.

One suspects that studio notes or test screening responses reacted strongly against the revelation. The canine face of one of Disney’s most beloved films, not to mention firehouses everywhere, are at best turned into ambiguous vicious beasties here. That’s at least one thought which crossed my mind when Emma Stone’s voiceover narration immediately insisted she held herself entirely responsible—that is until Cruella and the audience later learn that it was the Baroness who orchestrated this seeming accident.

“There were no words,” Cruella’s voiceover says following Catherine’s fall to a watery grave. “It was my fault. I had killed my mother.” She even later jokes it’s the same old sad story: “genius girl gets her mother killed and ends up alone.”

Nonetheless, it seems to me the movie doth protest too much. Images are more powerful than words, especially for a younger audience. And for an entire generation now reared on superhero movies where there’s always a mother, father, uncle, or goldfish in need of being avenged, Cruella suggests a different kind of inciting incident than what its voiceover would have you believe. And that image involves black-spotted poochies bearing very sharp teeth.

Even though the dialogue never has Stone’s character explicitly blame or criticize the dogs, Cruella makes sure to underline her fixation with the creatures. After Estella adopts the Cruella persona, one of her first acts of vengeance—other than crashing the Baroness’ party in a sumptuous red dress worthy of Scarlett O’Hara—is to kidnap the Baroness’ Dalmatians. There is some lip-service paid by the script that says she needs the doggies to retrieve a necklace that one of them swallowed. But once again, you wonder if this is a studio note about wishing to downplay the fact that their (anti)heroine is a dog-napper at the halfway mark and is about to only get more wicked.

In fact, we hear Stone’s Cruella openly imagine out loud if the Dalmatians would make a good coat at one point. And while she doesn’t (yet) act on this thought, she then wears a faux-Dalmatian cape at her punk rock rager across the street from the Baroness’ ruined fashion show, successfully causing her enemy to think this Cruella creature has skinned her dogs and is now draped in their leathered hides.

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It’s actually pretty dark for a kid’s movie, and at least in the confines of the majority of the film where Stone is playing Cruella, it’s a clever inversion of audience expectation. This Cruella hasn’t killed any dogs, but her evolving obsession with Dalmatians being triggered by their association with the woman she is trying to destroy is pretty satisfying. After all, when we meet the classically evil incarnate version of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, we never learn why she is so anxiously awaiting the birth of Pongo and Perdita’s exact litter of puppies. In Cruella, we discover she gifted Pongo and Perdita to both their owners—Roger and Anita—and, as Stone ominously says in her last line of dialogue in the movie. “I have some ideas [about what to do next].”

Yet revealing the Dalmatians killed her mother is a bit forced and a little gauche, even for someone like Cruella de Vil. It’s also a byproduct of filmmakers often feeling the nonexistent pressure to explain every aspect of an intellectual property’s canon in a prequel… or perhaps just the IP-holders insisting every familiar aspect be wrung dry. It’s what led Disney’s Solo: A Star Wars Story to invent an unwanted and unfortunately glib explanation for Han Solo’s funky last name (an imperial customs official saw him traveling alone!). And it’s why the filmmakers behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine thought audiences really cared about how Wolverine got his leather jacket. (Spoiler: we didn’t.)

This is not to nitpick Cruella, which really is a playful delight whenever it’s about a war between the two Emmas. It’s just interesting that the best Disney live-action retread is at its weakest when it’s actually bending over backward to tie into the property it’s redoing. As it turns out, maybe we just wanted a Stone vs. Thompson riff on The Devil Wears Prada where they’re both devils.

Cruella is now playing in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access.

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