In this time of regurgitating the same ideas over and over again, Disney has decided to announce the release of their live-action movie Cruella, set to come out May 28, 2021. The trailer, which dropped on Feb. 17, shows Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil, the iconic villainess from 101 Dalmatians. The film is intended to serve as an origin story for Cruella de Vil (Estella, in the film), set in 1970s London, as she attempts to make a name for herself in the fashion industry. Emma Thompson is also set to appear in the film, portraying Cruella’s rival in the fashion world known as The Baroness. Game of Thrones’ Joel Fry and Cobra Kai’s Paul Walter Hauser will be her henchmen, Horace and Jasper, and Emily Beecham from Into the Badlands will play Anita. There are rumors circulating that Dev Patel will be playing Rodger, but this remains unconfirmed. The cast is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and the action sequences that are seen in the trailer certainly look interesting. The only question left to ask is: why?
Cruella de Vil was originally created for the 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. Disney later bought the rights to adapt the book a year later, and released the classic animated movie in 1961. At this point, the most that could be said about Cruella’s past was that she was a bratty, spoiled child, and was previously the schoolmate of Anita. Animator Marc Davis, who also worked on Sleeping Beauty, intentionally drew inspiration from people he knew in order to get her character right. “She was tall and thin and talked constantly—you never knew what she was saying, but you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. What I really wanted to do was make the character move like someone you wouldn’t like.”
This was something that was easily accomplished. In the original animated movie, Cruella is loud and abrasive, the smoke from her cigars clouding up the room, and she constantly talks over everyone. She openly mocks her former schoolmate’s husband and disregards any personal boundaries. Her name is literally a play on ‘cruel devil.’ Glenn Close, who portrayed Cruella in the 1996 live-action film, wanted to portray Cruella as terribly as possible. “I think that Cruella basically has no redeeming human characteristics. Except she does have a sense of humor, albeit wicked. . . . She’s gleeful in her evilness, and there’s something very engaging about it,” said Close.
There has been a very recent push in movie studios to release the ‘hidden’ stories of villains; instead of portraying them in black or white; they become more complex and gain more depth. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are villains that just don’t require a redemption arc — nor do they deserve one. The American Film Institute placed Cruella de Vil at #39 on their 100 Years of Heroes and Villains list, released in 2003, just above Freddy Krueger. She was created to be bad, and it’s a job she does well; it’s very hard to confuse the motives of someone whose sole priority is to literally skin puppies for a fur coat. It’s one thing to want to try to paint a villain as someone more morally gray, but, unfortunately, animal cruelty isn’t a very morally gray action.
A villain isn’t necessarily better just because they’re given a tragic backstory. Disney did the same thing with Maleficent, where, in the process of trying to make her a relatable and sympathetic character, effectively undermined what made her such a good villain in the first place — the fact that she was motivated by spite and pettiness, and, of course, turning into a huge dragon in order to fight the prince and keep Aurora trapped in her eternal slumber. She isn’t really meant to be viewed as good, but rather as a worthy opponent for the protagonists of the story, in the same way that Cruella is.
With the release of the Cruella trailer, many people responded in derision. People on Twitter began to refer to the film as Disney’s Joker, likening the trailer to the Joker film that was released in 2019, or Cruella to Harley Quinn. Many have bemoaned the fact that the film will likely try to portray Cruella as someone deserving of sympathy, or has been beaten down. Stone’s voice is heard in the trailer saying “I am woman, hear me roar.” This is attempting to give feminist undertones, but within the context of who Cruella de Vil is, it’s not very uplifting. “It was the patriarchy holding her back from skinning dogs,” one YouTube comment under the trailer writes. “Disney, she’s not one of your best and most hated villains because she’s a woman in a position of power. She’s one of your best and most hated villains because she skins puppies,” says another.
When I think of Cruella de Vil, I don’t wonder if she effectively used girl power by practicing animal cruelty — I think of how obviously bad it is to want to make a fur coat out of puppies, and I certainly could care less about how she grew up. There are a myriad of reasons why a villain can end up the way they do; a lot of them can be complex and interesting. Unfortunately, Cruella de Vil is not really one of those villains. To see her is to take a sudden chill — and, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. Sometimes it’s more fun, and much more effective, when your villain is just a villain.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Disney / Variety