Disney’s recent fixation with remaking their beloved animated films into live-action features has been met with a mixed reception. To be fair, not all of these live-action remakes have missed the mark (I rather enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin). But Disney turning the idea of remaking their animated legacy as live-action films into a kind of sub-genre seems superfluous. Disney’s animated films are (mostly) considered timeless, very few of them are actually asking for a remake. And with the possible exception of the aforementioned Jungle Book, I don’t think any of these live-action remakes have been as good as the animated movies they’re adapting.
Interestingly, in 2021 Disney released Cruella, a live-action film about the villainous Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians. I say that’s interesting for two reasons: the first reason is that Disney already made a live-action remake of that movie in 1996 which starred Glenn Close as Cruella. The second reason (and perhaps as a consequence of the first reason) is that 2021’s Cruella isn’t really a remake of 101 Dalmatians, but an origin story for the Cruella de Vil character, with Emma Stone in the title role.
Personally, I don’t think Cruella de Vil needed an origin story. But to be fair, Cruella is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Though I’m not too sure who its intended audience was meant to be.
Cruella is set in 1970s London (the change in decade is a notable alteration from the animated original, seeing as that film was released in 1961). A young girl born with half-black, half-white hair named Estella has a gift for fashion, but has a notorious mean streak, with her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) giving her the moniker ‘Cruella’ to address the less ideal half of her personality. When Estella’s behavior lands her in trouble, her mother hopes to transfer her to a better school, but lacks the money to do so. So Catherine stops by the notorious Hellman Hall to ask for a loan from her old friend and former employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While there, Estella is chased by the Baroness’ three dalmatians, who end up knocking Catherine off a cliffside balcony to her death…
Before I go on, I have to stop and address this. Disney movies often feature the death of a parent or guardian, going all the way back to Bambi. Usually, these moments are appropriately sad and meaningful. But I gotta say, death by dalmatian pushing someone off a cliff… now THAT’S a new one. And is this supposed to justify Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians down the road or something? As if someone hating dogs could ever be justified.
As ridiculous as this moment is, the story does pick up. So let’s move on.
Estella, now an orphan, flees Hellman Hall, accidentally leaving behind the necklace her mother passed down to her. She ends up meeting two orphaned boys, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she becomes something of their surrogate sister. The three grow up living as conmen and petty thieves. One day, on her birthday, Estella is gifted an entry-level job at a department store by Jasper and Horace, as they believe Estella is too talented and deserves better than what life with them can provide.
Though the job isn’t much, it opens the door for Estella’s dreams. Eventually, she winds up getting a job as a designer for none other than the Baroness herself. Though her dreams seem to be coming true on paper, the reality of it is much less of a dream, as the Baroness rules her empire with an iron fist. While Estella seems to manage the hardships (and verbal abuse) for a while, her attitude shifts when she realizes the Baroness has her mother’s long-lost necklace. Estella enlists the help of Jasper and Horace – as well as their dogs Buddy and Wink – to try to steal the necklace back (Estella’s argument being that the necklace is technically hers), which eventually escalates into a rivalry with the Baroness. Estella will stop at nothing to bring the Baroness’ empire down, both from the inside and outside of it, adopting her old moniker of ‘Cruella’ when she starts a rival fashion company of her own. But the deeper the rivalry goes, the more the Cruella persona begins to take over Estella’s life.
The film basically plays out like The Devil Wears Prada taken to the extreme. And to be perfectly honest, Cruella ultimately is a fun movie, due in no small part to its cast, Emmas Stone and Thompson in particular elevating their characters and their rivalry. And it’s an appropriately fun movie to look at, due to its emphasis on fashion as well as its setting. I was actually surprised in how much I ended up enjoying Cruella and how engrossed I got in the rivalry between its titular anti-heroine and the Baroness. With that said, there are still a few questionable elements in the film.
First and foremost, try as it might, Cruella can’t quite justify why Cruella de Vil needed an origin story (other than to separate this film from the 1996 live-action remake, I guess). During many of the earlier scenes of the movie, whenever Estella was getting a tongue-lashing from the Baroness, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have worked just fine if Cruella had been in the Baroness’ role, and Estella could have instead been the character Anita from the animated film. Seeing as Cruella and Anita were described as ‘schoolmates’ in the 1961 original, changing that history to that of boss and employee would at least explain the mysterious age gap between the two characters from the animated film. That’s certainly not a knock on Emma Stone’s Cruella, of course. It just seems like the movie could have cut out the middle man.
Anita does show up in the film (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as a gossip columnist who ends up helping Cruella in her schemes against the Baroness. And if you’re wondering, her future husband Roger shows up as well (Kayvan Novak), as the Baroness’ lawler.
Maybe the reason Disney opted for an origin story for Cruella was that it was the only way to make a movie about Cruella and still have the audience root for her? Cruella de Vil was always one of Disney’s most popular villains, but she’s one of the least likable of the lot when you think about it (her goal in the animated film was to skin a bunch of puppies to make a fur coat, after all). They couldn’t exactly make a movie about Cruella as depicted in the animated film and still expect the audience to cheer for her. I guess the origin story was Disney’s way of having their cake and eating it too. But, like Maleficent, it does make me wonder how fans of the character would take to the film, if they had to change Cruella so much in order to make her the central character (though the results here are much better than they were in Maleficent, and at least in this movie Cruella’s personality ends up closer to her animated counterpart by the end, whereas Maleficent never did in either of her live-action films).
Maybe some fans of Cruella de Vil will like the movie, and maybe some won’t. But I don’t think younger fans of 101 Dalmatians will much care for it. I guess, to be fair, the film is rated PG-13, so it is probably made with older kids and teenagers in mind. But that again makes me wonder why Disney would adapt 101 Dalmatians in order to make such a movie. Cruella is a movie for teenagers based on a movie for kids about that movie’s villain in which that villain is now a good guy. I guess it’s not impossible to make that odd concoction work, and I have to admit that Cruella does mostly work. But I think it still suffers a bit of awkwardness from that identity crises (do I need to point out “death by getting knocked off a cliff by a dalmatian” again?).
I don’t think Cruella reaches the same heights as the Jungle Book or Aladdin remakes, but it’s maybe a better movie than you’d expect. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson really make the film engaging, and the supporting cast help carry things as well (I especially like Hauser as Horus, who is the most faithful to the animated character).
Cruella is a curious little oddity for Disney fans, and a fun movie in its own right. It may be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s a pleasant surprise.