One thing that Disney does well is origin stories. The creators behind the characters and their stories have an uncanny ability to home in on the parts of the character that are essential. They can then extrapolate those parts, turning them into an origin story that is as fun and powerful as the story from whence it came.
The Disney origin stories like Maleficent, seed smoothly into the canon as well, because they are so meticulously divined. Cruella is a perfect example of the process. The film is so well teased from the 101 Dalmatians that it contains some amazing Easter eggs and links between the two tales. Audiences who loved the 101 Dalmatians can easily dive into Cruella without forsaking their love of the animated original Cruella.
Humanizing a Larger Than Life Villain
Through the links and Easter eggs, audiences can glean a picture of the villain Cruella DeVil that is a lot less fantastic than we all first knew. Cruella introduces us to live-action versions of the woman’s goons while fleshing out the origins of their relationship. This leads to one of many moments where we begin to sympathize with the villain, named Estella.
Joel Frye and Paul Walter Houser compliment Emma Stone’s Estella/Cruella wonderfully well as Horace and Jasper. Estella considers them family, but to Cruella, the two are just the goons she needs to get the work done. The two men are even built like the goons we know from the animated feature. As kids, they find Estella on a bench in the part right after she loses her mother. They band together, using petty crimes to stay alive, with goals of a big score that makes them rich.
Craig Gillespie continuously brings Estella’s reality before us so that we remember her state. She is parentless and living on the fringe of society, but the young woman still has dreams. She wants to be a fashion designer and for the most famous designer in the world, the Baroness. Their relationship had me rooting for Cruella all the way through the film. Every misdeed made by her seemed warranted up against the cruelness of the Baroness. It’s not hard to empathize and maybe become a Cruella fan.
Canonical Easter Eggs
In addition to Jasper and Horace, there are several other Easter eggs in the film. Cruella’s hair, which we find is natural, her dogs, and her car are all just a few Easter eggs that Gillespie left behind. There are the dalmatians and the famous dalmatian coat. We never get a straight answer as to what this coat is made of. But it’s not necessary, the rumors have been set and the reputation of being a puppy kills born.
We also meet a Black Anita Darling, who ends up creating that relationship with Cruella that I always puzzled over when I was younger. Cruella establishes that relationship in a way that makes sense. Anita and Cruella team up to take down the Baroness with Anita’s reporting and Cruella’s stunts. Theirs is not a close relationship because the two were never on the same page morally. Hadn’t been since they first met in school as much younger girls.
The car is another big element that harkens back to the animated series is the car. The Devil” car was boosted from the Baroness, by Cruella herself. Horace makes some changes and then reveals the “Devil” car we know. It even comes with the license plate that we all remember puzzling until Horace explains.
The Fabulous Fashion Connection
The fashion that defines the villain at her prime, fuels her rise in this origin story. Estella gets drunk and recreates a dull store window before passing out at the scene. She worships this woman until the day that the woman she admires is not as she seems. They have a more personal connection that fuels Cruella’s vendetta and her creative drive.
The fashions that the young maven creates are so much more than clothing. Che makes them a statement, a bad one—bad as in badass. These stunts are the group’s capers. They are also how we begin to glimpse Estella/Cruella’s true talent. She has the assistance of Artie, played by John McCrea. The actor’s Ziggy Stardust look is perfect for the era and the fashion, making him feel like a natural addition to the team, despite Artie’s nonexistence in the 101 Dalmatians.
The era itself is perfect for this origin story, with the burgeoning high fashion industry, the music, and the riskier fashion, the 60s/70s window of time was the best for this story. We are used to the story set in what was the early 1900s, but this seems a better fit. It’s as though the fashion world at the time was waiting just to become the birthplace of Cruella.
An Update for 101 Dalmatians Next?
Cruella works so well that it will leave audiences pining for a follow-up. Perhaps an update to the dalmatian film we know so well? Whatever the next iteration may be, there needs to be one and it must have Emma Stone as Cruella. The groundwork has been laid. Any changes now would ruin a great thing before we get to fully savor it.
Cruella debuts in theaters and on Disney+ on May 28.
Check out my review of Cruella and Spirit with my guest critic—my 5 y.o. Quinn.
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