When you make an origins story of a beloved character or property, the film’s success often comes down to the story and how twisty you can make it, checking all the boxes in the meantime and satisfying all the fans with callbacks and Easter eggs – a glorified fan-fiction. Disney’s Cruella, based on the villain from their 1961 animated movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which itself is based on the novel by Dodie Smith, definitely has all of that – and wonderfully so. However, what makes the film stand out among its contemporaries is that it offers much more than that.
Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is a young girl raised by a single mother (Emily Beecham). Born with her trademarked black and white hair, split down the middle, Estella finds herself forced into a rebellious nature. She’s expressive and artistic, and always getting into trouble at school – mostly because of her tenacity when standing up to bullies. She even has a name for her wild side: Cruella.
Right away we think we know where the story is going, focusing on the “you can’t get anywhere following the rules” cliche. However, the film takes a poetic approach to Cruella’s backstory and her path to becoming the psychopath we’ve known her for all these years. But we also see that her split personality was there from the start. Where most origin stories just show the “snap,” Cruella shows how she’s always had some crazy inside her, while providing a brilliant reason for her to be hiding that side all these years.
Eventually her mother decides to move them to London for a fresh start. On the way there, however, she visits some wealthy people to ask for financial assistance. Although she’s told to stay put, Estella sneaks out of the car, wreaks havoc at the mansion party and gets chased by three vicious dalmatians, who inadvertently push her mother off of a cliff to her death. Orphaned, Estella meets up with two other derelict children, Jasper and Horace.
The three grow up together in an abandoned building. Fast-forward ten years and we learn the kids have survived all this time by being very good at pickpocketing and elaborate thievery. Estella (Emma Stone), who aspires to be a fashion designer, uses her talents to aid them in their deception. She eventually lucks into an actual job working as a designer for the world-renowned haute couture magnate, Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). The Baroness is ruthless, abusive, and makes Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (a film that holds some resemblance to this one) seem like a lapdog.
It just so happens that the Baroness has some secrets that pertain to the death of Estella’s mother, which unlocks Cruella, who had been repressed since her childhood. However, this time, Cruella isn’t just rebellious and brash, but conniving and rotten – much like the Baroness. And she sets out to plan an elaborate and creative revenge on her new enemy.
Craig Gillespie (Fright Night, I, Tonya) directs a version filled with its fair share of twists and turns. However the proven storyteller knows how to translate this story in a way that can elevate the script itself, with an exciting pace, kinetic and stylish camerawork, and a tone that balances its inherently dark humor with that of a snappy crime drama.
Dana Fox and Tony McNamara are credited with the script, but we all know the creative process isn’t always so simple. It’s almost surprising that the story is so concise and focused, considering there are a total of five names attached to the writing. However, the pedigree is impressive. Aside from Fox, who’s experience mostly lies in rom-coms, and McNamara who wrote the Best Picture nominee The Favourite, there are three others credited with the story: Aline Brosh McKenna, who coincidentally wrote The Devil Wears Prada, Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), and Steve Zissis (this was his first feature).
Not every heist film comes together like this one does. Most pack themselves with too many details so that, upon the big reveal, you’re panicking to piece things together. But sometimes it’s good to be able to see the seams – as long as you don’t know they’re seams the first go-around. Cruella masters the art of the payoff for setups that were never blatant to begin with. The callbacks are instantly understood and traced back to exact details without prompting any head-scratching.
Cruella narrates details during the beginning of the film that play an unexpected part in setting up events much later on, even having a hand in covertly misdirecting us for the sake of its grand illusion. Likewise, the plausibility of Cruella, Jasper, and Horace pulling off their big heist isn’t just random, but totally justified by showing them as master thieves early on.
Stone puts on the best performance of her career so far, immersing herself in the iconic role, required to play two sides of the same character without making them feel separate, both as the spunky but awkward Estella but extraordinarily as the menacing Cruella. Thompson is a great villain, providing the hate-worthy fuel for the audience and our protagonist without giving an ounce of leeway.
Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry are perfectly cast as the adult versions of Horace and Jasper, respectively. Hauser is the very funny comedic relief, but is never exploited in the role so as to detract from the weight of the stakes. Fry isn’t just the straight man to Hauser, but a sympathetic and highly believable conscience for Estella/Cruella. He slowly learns he can’t reason with a psychopath, but his love for her as a friend makes it so he can’t help but try.
Cruella really explores nature vs. nurture; not only the literal origin of our protagonist’s duality, but how it has always existed and evolved over time. The Baroness unlocks something in Estella that was already there, and now she tries to harness both sides at once. Yet this movie isn’t focused on being a “learning to control your powers” story. Through self-discovery, Estella/Cruella learns that the struggle is removed when you stop trying to alternate between two different personalities. The goal is finding a way for them both to exist at once. If you give people the first impression that you’re a little crazy, it’s easier for them to appreciate your normal side.
However, if you present yourself as normal right off the bat, it’s difficult for others to accept your crazy side when it’s inevitably unleashed. Prior to Cruella, the best origins story I’d seen for a Disney villain was in the TV show Once Upon a Time, coincidentally also focused on Cruella de Vil. It was darkly poetic and every bit out of the box as fans could’ve wanted. However, Disney’s latest rendition on the character not only tops this, but is easily the best of their divisive live-action adaptations of their animated films.
The 1961 animated original is great in its own right, one of the most unique installments in Disney Animation’s long lineage. Set in modern day, One Hundred and One Dalmatians wasn’t a musical or a fairytale or even fabelesque. It was an escape thriller, and a great one at that, filled with dissonant tones and an unforgettable villain. For all intents and purposes, it was almost as rebellious as its own antagonist. So it’s only fitting the 2021 origins film play by its own rules as well. Even when you think it’s predictable, you have no idea where it’s going.
Perhaps the only misstep in this film is the director’s resistance to making Cruella a truly wicked villain by the end, as though the powers-that-be had strict instructions against her becoming evil rather than just a misunderstood rebel. Gillespie’s I, Tonya has similar themes. However, the 2017 film is based on a true story, providing an alternate vantage point for the notorious ice skater. Conversely, Cruella is meant to be a prequel for someone who ends up trying to murder animals in the name of fashion. There’s definitely a setup for a sequel, so maybe that’s when the villain takes the next step towards her downfall.
Many films of this nature hinge on the very existence of their original material. However, Cruella is able to stand on its own as an entertaining and well-made revenge-heist movie first and foremost – regardless of any connection to its source. With fun surprises and allusions to the original, the added element of context merely provides an extra cherry on top, which only elevates the experience even further. Elevated even further by evocative costumes and set design, Cruella has an undeniable charm that makes you forget that this is the latest entry in a recent string of controversial Disney remakes and reboots – it’s just a great movie.