When Disney released the historical 101 Dalmatians live-action film in 1996, Cruella was introduced as the haute couture house- the “House de Vil’s” owner. Cruella was portrayed as a villain who tried to kidnap the puppies that belonged to her worker Anita. The question is why did she want coats made of Dalmatians so bad?
In this movie prequel to the 101 Dalmatians movie, set in the 1970s London, Cruella’s life story casts that led to her becoming the owner of her own couture house. Growing up as Estella Miller, Cruella was a nickname given to her by her adoptive mother Catherine due to her rebellious nature. After witnessing her adoptive mother being pushed off a cliff, Estella still managed to find her way to Regent’s Park, London. Orphaned, she befriends two street urchins, Jasper and Horace. The three of them work together as thieves to overcome a life of penury on the streets of London. Estella decides to dye her natural black and white hair, red, in order to go unnoticed. A few years later, Estella lands a job at Liberty Department Store as a cleaner thanks to Jasper and Horace. There, she meets a Baroness and eventually begins working as a designer for the Baroness. When she saw the Baroness wearing a necklace that her mother once showed her, she comes to a realisation that the Baroness was there on the night her mother died.
Wanting to get the necklace back, Estella attempts various methods such as disguising as Cruella to attend a ball hosted by the Baroness. The relationship between the two soon sours. Eventually, Estella manages to get the necklace back and realises that the Baroness is her birth mother. In an attempt to kill Cruella, the Baroness tries to push Cruella down the same cliff where her adopted mother died years ago, but Cruella managed to survive due to a parachute built into her clothing. She then returns to witness the Baroness being arrested. As the biological heir, she inherits the Hellman Hall and shortens it to Hell Hall.
Leading up to its premiere, Cruella was met with initial impressions of distaste, anger or scepticism from audiences as to how the narrative could possibly “humanise” a villain that skins puppies to make fur coats. Meanwhile, others had mentioned that this was not the first time Disney had taken familiar and iconic villains to make live-action films out of and were hopeful to see a new, perhaps less cruel route that could be reimagined with Cruella, as Disney had done with Maleficent. Some also pointed out that to sympathise with stories of male villains (i.e. the overwhelmingly positive response to and success of Todd Phillip’s Joker, which trended online upon the release of Cruella’s trailer) but immediately criticise Cruella without having seen the film, exhibited a form of gender double standards or misogyny.
Nonetheless, criticism aside, the anticipation for Cruella, portrayed by Emma Stone, had already been making a big statement in the fashion and beauty industry. Variations of Cruella’s signature two-toned half black, half platinum blonde hairstyle re-emerged as a trend across social media platforms, including Instagram and TikTok, as well as in professional magazine photoshoots, along with her extravagant, bold, and punk rock clothing style. With the launch of a new MAC Cosmetics collection inspired by the chic villain, Stone as Cruella adorned the display windows of cosmetic stores, too.
All this cranked up the excitement for fans of the Academy award-winning actress to see her take on the role of such an infamous villain character for the first time. Stone herself expressed in an interview with The New York Times, “I loved the character of Cruella – I don’t want to say that I like the things that drove her, because she’s obviously a very sick woman, but I found the character very interesting”. Indeed, regardless of Cruella’s reputation as a felon, some underlying, more universal themes may be drawn from the character’s tragic but intriguing backstory full of twists depicted in this film.
Themes and Moral Values
One main theme of the movie is the determination to overcome adversity in order to achieve one’s dream. Despite struggling to make ends meet in the countryside, her single mother, Catherine, had always seen the creative spark in Estella and took a leap of faith by moving to London to help her daughter pursue her dreams of being a fashion designer. Nothing could have prepared young Estella for the moment that she became orphaned and lost the one person who believed in her the most. She managed to quickly adapt to a new way of life by becoming a thief. Although it took some unethical tactics just for Estella to get her talent seen, it was Estella’s passion, resilience, and sharp-wit that garnered her the attention for her work – from the department store window she decorated which got her hired, to the outfits she designed to upstage the renowned Baroness. Even after landing two jobs, she was constantly dismissed and belittled by her bosses. She fought hard to prove herself worthy of not only attention but also appreciation and awe as a rising fashionista and eventually became the owner of an haute couture house.
The film also highlights the importance of friends. Cruella’s reckless and short-tempered personality caused her to collect more foes than friends throughout school. A major turn-around occurred when Jasper and Horace first met Cruella at Regents Park and welcomed her as their friend after discovering that just like them, she was also a street orphan. The three went on to live together and operated as a team of thieves, skilfully coordinating missions under the disguise of various identities, with the help of costumes designed by Estella. Knowing that her potential lay far beyond pick-pocketing for a living, Jasper and Horace surprised Estella on her birthday with the news that they’d secured her a job at the Liberty Department Store, where the Baroness ended up hiring her and the seeds of her fashion career sprouted. Despite their initial apprehensions towards Estella’s new plans to get revenge as Cruella, Jasper and Horace stood by Estella and looked out for one another as their chosen family. When the boys were seized and tied up, Cruella did not neglect them. Instead, she tried to rescue them and was willing to sacrifice herself in exchange for their freedom and safety. Even amidst her thirst for power, she was reminded of her greater loyalty to her friends.
The familial relationships are just as significant, being simultaneously touching and conflicting. After all, the mother-daughter bond is the primary factor that kept Estella going, to repay her love as well as to later avenge her death when she discovered that the Baroness was responsible for her mother’s murder. Traumatised by the death, Estella found solace in frequently “speaking” to her mother at the same water fountain over the years into her adulthood. She also schemed an elaborate act just to retrieve the red heirloom necklace, treasuring the last possession her mother had left her. The other familial bond is with the Baroness, albeit only by blood, as there was no genuine ounce of love between Estella and her biological mother from beginning to the end of their encounter.
Conversely, through the Baroness, the movie teaches one not to use others as a means to an end. The Baroness had constantly overworked her designers and claimed their work as her own, not once accrediting them or praising Estella for their many contributions, let alone for her statement piece that Estella had worked on all through the night. She also spoke in a foul manner to her staff, tossed (and tased) them around, and vowed never to apologise for her behaviour. Emma Thompson displayed excellent acting on her part by playing a sassy and shady character that left no room for sympathy right up to the end when she is caught red-handed for pushing Cruella over the cliff.
In the end, one of the audience’s biggest questions was answered: Disney did steer away from the original narrative of the animated Cruella, who skins Dalmatians to make fur coats. In fact, Stone’s version of Cruella remains a dog-lover, with her own pup, Buddy, being one of her closest companions while Horace’s chihuahua, Wink, was one of her closest allies. Eventually, Cruella even managed to train the Baroness’ Dalmatians and adopted them as her own. The movie was indeed a rewriting of the backstory of the villain, or rather, anti-heroine.
The two-hour-long movie was enjoyable and greatly suspenseful. It is a re-imagination of a classic that can make one love one of Disney’s most hated villains. At the same time, it is also able to highlight many important moral values that one can take away. Unlike Disney princess movies that typically end with a prince charming saving the day, there is no love story or promise to a happy ending in this movie. Disney fans will not be left disappointed at this thematically ambitious film.
Written by: Sumitra Cheong and Michelle Cheong