Film & Television

Two Emmas, Three Dalmatians, and 101 Reasons to Love ‘Cruella’

A few years ago, Bloomberg estimated the Disney Princesses line (including media, dolls, clothing, and other merchandise) to be worth about $500 million a year, second only to Disney’s Mickey Mouse business. As the mother of a girl who grew up in the early 2000s, I’m sure I contributed significantly to that revenue. Disney Princesses are, of course, beautiful, with luxurious locks, big eyes and tiny waists; they can sing; they can dance; they can communicate with forest creatures. Whether they’re indigenous maidens, hapless orphans, under a curse, or conscripted into the army, these young women are destined to live happily ever after. After all, they’re princesses and they always (always, always) end up marrying some version of Prince Charming, even if they’ve only known him for five minutes.

But what lessons are they actually teaching our daughters?

Let’s take a closer look. Cinderella clearly demonstrates that men will judge a proverbial book by its cover. A total makeover and her prince is head over (glass) heels. Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are assaulted in their sleep. Jasmine is swept away by a con artist. Ariel has to give up her voice to be with a man. (Metaphor much?) And Belle? She was clearly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. 

To Disney’s credit, the latest batch of heroines, including Frozen’s Ana and Elsa, Brave’s Merida, Tangled’s Rapunzel, and the eponymous Moana, are more rational, more capable, and less damsel-in-distress-ish.

But if you really want to find a feminist Disney heroine, look no further than Cruella de Vil. She was a successful businesswoman in the early 1960s. She didn’t need a man to feel whole. She had incredible style and a couple of evil minions at her beck and call. She was certainly a feminist, she was all-Disney, and if she turns out to be more anti-heroine than heroine, well, that’s part of the fun.

Cruella, directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), and written by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, and Aline Brosh McKenna, serves up the fascinating backstory of the infamous, glamorous would-be puppy killer from 1961’s 101 Dalmatians. It’s clever, gorgeous, and often thrilling. It’s the perfect reason to go back to your local multiplex (or curl up on your couch if you’re not quite ready to brave a movie theater).

Estella, the only child of sweet single mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), struggles to fit in. Her physical anomaly — hair color evenly split between black and white — is the least of her eccentricities. She’s bright but tough, with a signature stye that looks more Carnaby Street than village prep school. When she loses her temper, her mum reminds her “Your name is Estella, not Cruella.”  Try as she might, however, her bad side often wins out over the good. Eventually, she’s expelled, and her mother decides they should move to London, since Estella aspires to a career in fashion.

Along the way, they make one fateful stop at a vast mansion where a glamorous party is going on. Catherine tells Estella to wait in the car, but one thing leads to several others and our young heroine makes it to London, orphaned and penniless. At this point, Cruella takes a decidedly Dickensian twist, with Estella and her trusty mutt Buddy joining a small band of pickpockets. As the children grow up, their capers become more elaborate, with Estella creating costumes that allow them to pull off each new grift. “I got to do what I love,” she recalls in voiceover, “We were reaping the rewards.” Still, she complains to her colleagues Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), “I want to be a fashion designer, not a thief.” For her birthday, they manage to get her a position at Liberty, London’s posh department store. There, despite her dead-end janitorial job — and thanks to a late-night, alcohol-fueled burst of illicit creativity — she attracts the attention of “The Baroness,” haute couture’s hautest designer.

And the rest of the movie can be described as the battle of the two Emmas, a fashionable and feminist fight to the death between old guard and new. And it is sheer delight.

Emma Thompson is the Baroness, larger than life and the reigning queen of society’s en vogue. She makes The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly downright cuddly. “You can’t care about anyone else,” she tells her new assistant Estella. “Everyone else is an obstacle. You care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I had cared about anyone or thing, I might’ve died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness. You have the talent for your own label. Whether you have the killer instinct is the big question.”

“I hope I do,” answers Estella, played to the hilt by Cruella’s other Emma, Emma Stone. Estella is taking notes and soon realizes that there’s only room for one diva designer. Her alter ego, Cruella, begins to show up, crashing parties, setting off pyrotechnics, staging dueling runway shows, stealing garbage trucks, and other crazy, headline-grabbing stunts. She soon realizes that she and the Baroness are linked in more ways than one and her lust for revenge knows almost no bounds. (She does stop at killing the older woman’s three vicious Dalmatians. But just barely.)

Eventually Estella embraces her darker self, as she explains to her dead mother. “I guess you were always scared, weren’t you, that I’d be a psycho? ‘Love me into shape,’ I suppose, was the plan. But the thing is, I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might. I never was. I’m Cruella! Born brilliant, born bad and a little bit mad.”

Thompson and Stone are extraordinarily well matched — both actresses playing against type and seeming to love every overdramatic minute of it. Really, they are magnificent together! As a backstory (and apologia of sorts) for one of Disney’s most nefarious villains, Cruella is deeply satisfying and an absolute feast for the senses. The hundreds of costumes are to die for (a most appropriate use of the phrase), and the soundtrack, — which includes Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” and, most aptly, the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” — is like an ongoing inside joke for any of us who might remember those hits when they were actually hits.

Disney gets credit for adding diversity to its all–white earlier catalog whenever it can. Here, the original couple from 101 Dalmatians, Anita and Roger, are played by a Black actress, Kirbie Howell-Baptiste, and an Iranian-English actor, Kayvan Novak. Neither is given much to do, but perhaps that can be addressed in Cruella, Part II

That’s a sequel-prequel that I will certainly line up to see.

 Cruella is currently available in theaters and on Disney+ for an additional fee.

 

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