Cruella Is Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss in Movie Form

A close-up of Emma Stone's Cruella with her trademark black and white hair, "The Future" stenciled across her face, and bright red, glittery lipstick.
Emma Stone as Cruella.
Image: Disney

In Cruella, you can plainly see that while some fans might not be too keen on the idea, Disney’s confident that new films meant to drastically reframe the origins of classic villains who stalk princesses and kill dogs are a key part of the future. Much like its central character, Cruella knows exactly what it is and makes little effort to deny or apologize for it as it introduces us to a younger, more dynamic Cruella (Emma Stone) who gets her first taste of proper infamy.

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But unlike the movie’s many bold, dazzling ensembles that serve as gorgeous set pieces to ogle at, Cruella’s plot comes across as a somewhat behind-the-times story of empowerment that forgets what makes villains truly compelling. Though there are shades of The Devil Wears Prada and Todd Phillips’ Joker present throughout Craig Gillespie’s (I, Tonya) film, the story actually has much more in common with Netflix’s Halston series about the eponymous fashion magnate. Like Halston, Cruella uses the backdrop of the fashion world to illustrate the evolution of its titular dressmaking visionary whose brusqueness is one of the many masks she wears. Where Halston has an overarching focus on the economics of the fashion world, though, Cruella instead puts emphasis on loneliness and a longing for personal revenge to transform a young girl into a burgeoning anti-villain.

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Cruella reintroducing herself to Anita.
Image: Disney

Before Stone shows up to begin chewing her fair share of scenery, Cruella opens in the past to introduce a much younger Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who gets her “Cruella” nickname from her mother Catharine (Emily Beecham), a poor laundrywoman who recognized her daughter’s brilliance at a young age. While Catharine tries to encourage Estella to be a free thinker and embrace her innately opinionated voice, the other children of the late ‘60s English countryside are far less open-minded, and Estella’s naturally two-toned hair makes her a prime target for schoolyard bullying. This part of Cruella’s origins are part of how Disney’s live-action film, like Maleficent before it, tries to make you understand its lead’s motivations. But it also borrows a number of details from Dodie Smith’s original The Hundred and One Dalmatians novel: Estella being childhood friends with Anita Darling (portrayed by Florisa Kamara in flashbacks and Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the present) for instance. After a very Disney-esque tragedy leaves young Estella with nothing but her dreams of living in London, she takes it upon herself to make them a reality with the help of some new friends her age—Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald).

By the time they’re all adults, Estella, Jasper (played as an adult by Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) work together as a team of skilled pickpockets to survive in the city. But Estella’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer make it impossible for her to be satisfied with her current station in life, and Cruella properly kicks off once she sets her mind to going out to get what she wants. A chance encounter convinces Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) that Estella might be worth bringing on as a new employee, and the women’s interaction becomes the central engine of the movie. Though Stone’s performance is engaging—particularly when she’s embodying the “Cruella” side of her not-quite-split personalities—her accent stands out a bit in a cast full of British actors. As the Baroness, Thompson brings a very expected The Devil Wears Prada quality to the film, but rather than playing to an Anna Wintour analogue, her performance skews more towards Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte, a choice that at times borders on comedic.

Though the Baroness gives Cruella a means of introducing other key Dalmatians characters like Roger (What We Do in the ShadowsKayvan Novak), she also embodies much of what makes the movie feel like a rather dated attempt at trying to turn an established villain into an empowering figure that we’re meant to sympathize with. At the same time that working for the Baroness alters the course of Estella’s life for the better, Cruella repeatedly stops to remind you what sort of domineering, selfish, and overbearing boss the Baroness is, all of which only prompts Estella to work that much harder. In the multiple gowns Oscar award-winning costume designer Jenny Beaven created for the film, you can see Estella’s raw talent evolving under the Baroness’ eye which leads to the women butting heads in a series of extravagant confrontations. While meek Estella might not feel safe calling her boss out for slicing her with a blade, Cruella makes her debut onto the fashion scene to establish herself as London’s newest enfant terrible.

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Horace, Cruella, and Jasper.
Image: Disney
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Despite Cruella’s occasional nods noticeably Joker-y imagery and a vague gesture towards the idea that Estella/Cruella might be dealing with some unaddressed mental issues, the movie steers more than clear of framing her as an anarchist. As Cruella commits herself to upending norms and claiming space in an industry she was born to excel in, she goes through a prolonged metamorphosis that makes her a more powerful presence. But the film, perhaps unintentionally, leans into a very specific kind of “girlboss” energy in the way explains both Cruella and the Baroness’ (two megalomaniacal white women) increasingly abusive relationships with their peers.

This might be less obvious were it not for Cruella’s surprisingly overlong (2 hours and 14 minutes) runtime during which all the supporting cast, many of them people of color, end up getting involved in plots that lead to little character development. This being a Cruella de Vil movie, dogs obviously factor into the mix in an important way, and you get a better idea of where Cruella’s specific obsession with dalmatians originates. Fans hoping to see “fun” dog antics similar to the animated 101 Dalmatians might end up being somewhat disappointed, though, as only three of the spotted canines play a role in the story, while a smaller dog in Cruella’s possession gets more screen time as it participates in her various crimes.

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In the way Cruella literally puts its titular character on multiple pedestals as she models her headline-grabbing gowns, the movie does hold her up as a figure to admire, which is a bit unsettling considering what sort of person she’s fated to become. Cruella de Vil’s ultimately doomed fate is something we’re all meant to keep out of sight and mind for fashion’s sake, but also for the sake of this specific kind of live-action Disney adaptation the studio insists will never go out of style.

Cruella hits theaters and will be available for Premiere Access on Disney+ on May 28.

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Charles Pulliam-Moore is an NYC-based culture critic whose work centers on fandom, pop culture, politics, race, and sexuality. He still thinks Cyclops made a few valid points.

DISCUSSION

lightshear
Adam Withers

I absolutely abhor this trend of “villains aren’t actually the villains” reworks. Some people are just a-holes, Cruella is one of them, and I’ve got no interest in a movie that’s looking to reframe her as some kind of aspirational glass-ceiling-breaker. I may understand why so many people are more interested in villains than in heroes, but I don’t have to like it.