Before discussing Cruella, the new origin story in theaters and available for $28.88 on Disney+, it seems necessary to acknowledge the swirling winds of corporate fashion that carved it from the firmament. It has become conventional wisdom (whether true or not) among the mega-corporations that own the biggest movie studios to believe that “mining existing IP” (which is to say, remaking and remixing old stories and characters) offers better returns than taking chances on new, original stories. So it is we got live-action(ish) remakes of Aladdin, The Lion King, the spinoff Maleficent and others.
The goal of Cruella is to throw hip creators at old content, and in the process hopefully cash in both on the classic Disney audience and tap into the savvier adult audience who tune in for prestige cable. And to do it by applying the live-action formula to Cruella De Vil, a character originally created in 1956 as such a pure villain that One Hundred and One Dalmations author Dodie Smith (born 1896) simply added two letters to “cruel devil” when conceiving the character’s name. Ah, but what if there was more to her? Enough to justify an entire origin story, say?
So it is Disney execs hired I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie and Emma Stone to turn a character previously known only as an abominable dog murderer into some kind of girlboss anti-hero. A story that no one could possibly have a personal stake in becomes, almost of its own accord, a fascinating pastiche reflecting the zeitgeist’s most contradictory impulses. No human person actually wanted to see a Cruella De Vil origin story; it was mandated by the market. What sacrifices, then, do humans make in an attempt to appease this fickle God?
In I, Tonya, Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers forced America to put aside what we thought we knew about Nancy Kerrigan’s tacky foil, which became both an exercise in empathy and an exploration of class. On the face of it, Tonya Harding, an unfairly maligned if not entirely heroic human, probably warranted that treatment a lot more than Cruel De Vil, the fictional two-toned dog murderer. Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara nonetheless attempt to apply roughly the same formula in Cruella, complete with ever-present classic rock needle drops. (Seriously, Cruella‘s music budget, featuring everything from The Rolling Stones to Queen to T-Rex, must’ve been bigger than the actor budget, assuming Disney didn’t already own it all).
In some ways, Cruella responds to the market forces that birthed it in the most obvious yet absurd ways. How do you create an origin story about a woman who grows up to want to skin Dalmatian puppies? You show Dalmatians killing her mother, obviously. This was a scene in Cruella‘s opening frame, set in the 1950s, in which little Estella’s mischievous alter ego, Cruella, gets her kicked out of boarding school. Estella watches as her mother goes to a fancy fashion soiree to beg for alms, and is instead cruelly pushed off a sea cliff by three snarling Dalmatian guard dogs (you know, Dalmatians, that famous guard dog breed).
This framing device is essentially Batman’s origin story remixed with “record scratch, freeze frame: yup, that’s me. You might be wondering how I got into this situation…” How the adorable Dalmatians got transmuted into the Joker in this analogy is worth pondering, though not for too long. The market wants what it wants.
Expanding on this “Dalmatians killed mum” origin story required more, however, and Cruella‘s solution to how to make its title character worthy of exploration was, strangely, to turn her into Vivienne Westwood. Because Vivienne Westwood was the Tonya Harding of fashion or something like that? Sure, why not.
Thus, the Oreo-haired little girl (apparently Cruella’s black-and-white hair was natural in the 101 Dalmatians canon and this could NOT BE ALTERED) becomes a London orphan who gets adopted by two fellow chimney sweep-esque urchins, Jasper and Horace (played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). Bonded by their difficult upbringings, they grow up to be three striving, grifting squatters in ’70s London’s burgeoning punk scene.
Just like Westwood, an art school dropout, who, along with her then-boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, is largely credited with inventing the “punk” aesthetic in the 70s at their store, SEX (McLaren went on to manage the Sex Pistols), Estella is a working-class hoodlum who aspires to one day shake up the fashion world. She makes her name tearing apart a dress and covering a window display in punk graffiti and at one point even crashes the reigning queen of fashion’s Spring show with a barge and Jasper chugging away on power chords (an on-the-nose nod to the Sex Pistols crashing the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977).
Corporations have been co-opting punk since punk’s inception, so it seems a little redundant to point it out in a review of a Disney movie 45 years on. Not that “Disney movie about the Sex Pistols” isn’t still pretty weird. Cruella even has its own Malcolm McLaren character, in the functionally useless Artie, played by John McCrea, a thrift store proprietor with a Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt drawn on his face. “Cruella the punk” is a mildly interesting mash-up, compelling in an “I recognize that” sort of way (gold star for me!), though it doesn’t really go anywhere. And how could it, really, constrained as it is by corporate-mandated adherence to an ancient Dalmatians canon.
Far more interesting is the way Cruella/Estella’s split personality seems to mirror the fractured psyche of the upwardly mobile 2020s liberal. If we reimagine the dog murderer as an iconoclast, does she automatically become a heroine? Is the girlboss protagonist a hero because she’s a girl or a villain because she’s a boss? Can we celebrate her pulling herself up by her bootstraps if it just means she becomes the new representative of predatory power? Cruella isn’t exactly successful in this exploration but it’s fun enough to watch it try. It’s also interesting that such a product of monopolistic capital is forced to offer at least a half-assed critique of that power structure, almost through sheer cultural inertia. It’s the sediment at the bottom of the pop-culture glass.
The first step in Estella’s journey is her Devil Wears Prada-esque apprenticeship under “The Baroness,” played by Emma Thompson, a callous, imperious, fabulously-dressed fashion designer who treats everyone like dirt, yet seems to be the only person in the world to recognize Estella’s talent. The Baroness is Estella’s mortal enemy, yet her praise means everything. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Gangs of New York says of befriending Bill The Butcher: “It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon; it’s warmer than you’d think.”
The question for Estella/Cruella then becomes: does she befriend The Baroness, destroy her, become her, or all three? It’s a relevant dilemma, both for Cruella‘s creators and its intended audience. In 1977, Barbara and John Ehrenreich coined the term “Professional Managerial Class” (PMC) to describe college-educated, technocratic middle-class overachievers, “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production,” who often scorn the less educated, manual labor-performing members of their ostensible political coalition. The PMC is, essentially, the face of the meritocracy, such that it exists.
It’s interesting the degree to which Cruella/Estella’s split personality, right down to the black and white hair and dual names, seems to be a perfect reflection of the PMC’s fractured psyche. Our generation has been trained, virtually from birth, to become part of this class — to strive, to study, to succeed, etc. Become the boss!
A critique of power and predatory capitalism — as represented by the cruel, sociopathic Baroness, who literally kills anyone who gets in her way — has become so widespread in the collective consciousness that it’s now appearing in a Disney movie. That’s progress, of a sort. We’ve gotten to a critique of the elite, yet we’re still doing our damndest to make sure that our own children become the elite. And why shouldn’t we? The presumptive alternative is poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, death. Yet it naturally creates a kind of cognitive dissonance to strive to become your enemy, as perfectly reflected in the Estella/Cruella schism.
How much should Estella become like The Baroness in order to defeat her? And what does that “defeat” even look like? And once Estella/Cruella becomes the new champion, then what?
That society at large hasn’t been able to square this circle is illustrated by the way Cruella can’t even seem to decide whether it wants us to root for Estella to become Cruella. Should she sacrifice the kind and humane parts of her personality in exchange for success, because that’s what success requires, or should she do something else? There’s the vague sense that Estella should be nice and “win” the right way but a near-total inability to imagine what that looks like.
After an extended flirtation with these interesting ideas, Cruella retreats into what it was intended to be all along, a crassly commercial, not-too-deep origin story for a character who probably never warranted it in the first place. It ends up falling back on, laughably, one of the oldest, most tried-and-true Disney tropes: the notion of secret royal blood. Cinderella isn’t some mistreated worker, she was a princess all along!
Estella/Cruella never has to ponder what it means to “win” in the meritocracy; she’s special by default, thanks to her true pedigree. If all Americans are temporarily embarrassed millionaires, all Disney protagonists are temporarily denobled aristocrats.
Thus Cruella is banal on one level, a deep-pocketed attempt to justify unnecessary content by coopting relevant actors and filmmakers and fusing them into an easy jukebox musical. On another, it’s an accidentally salient critique of our current notions of what it means to be the boss.