“Your name is Estella,” her mother says. “Not Cruella.” Not yet, anyway. Disney’s Cruella, headlined by Emma Stone, is named for its would-be villain rather than for the 90-something Dalmatian puppies she’s tried to dognap in the name of fashion, time and again, over the years. The original Cruella would probably have preferred a biopic more akin to The Devil Wears Pongo. But in line with Maleficent, another of Disney’s recent villain revamps, it’s our old ideas about these bad guys — these bad women — that are getting skewered rather than the women themselves. Those old caricatures have been rendered into last season’s sales rack relics — because Disney isn’t in the business of glorifying villains. At least, not anymore. And not directly.
But there’s the rub. The old villains are fun! Rather, they became fun. No one, probably not even deer hunters, wound up rooting for the guy who killed Bambi’s mother. But Uncle Scar? A saucy bitch. Jafar? A literal snake by the end but, really, from the start. Ursula: my octopus teacher. These legendary baddies are all a little more interesting than the heroes of their respective stories. Enticingly vampy, stylishly cruel, stocked with character motivations, surely, but not of the kind that offer much in the way of an appeal to their inner psychologies. The arched-brow barbs of their wit, the claws so befitting of their personalities: This was the pleasure and the purpose, the engineering that allowed us to align ourselves with the unlikely triumphs of the good guys while reveling — curious, tantalized, entertained — in the outlandishness of the bad.
Cruella de Vil: no exception. Originally envisioned by Dodie Smith, in her 1956 novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians; modeled in the 1961 animated adaptation of that book after the demonized but notoriously fascinating Tallulah Bankhead; then later revived in the 1996 live-action feature and its sequel into a gorgeous piece of pop grotesque — even her gloves were adorned with acrylic claws — by a campy, unhinged Glenn Close: Cruella has seen her share of renditions and mild revisions. But not until the new Cruella was her ostensible evil given a purpose, a backstory, a solution to the problem of her bloodthirst for spotted-pup skins — none of which seemed especially mysterious for a rich fashion maven whose taste predates the ethics of modern anti-fur campaigns, but here we are.
Cruella takes us back — way back, to the time before Cruella lived up to that name, and way, way before she could afford a ride as chic as a Panther De Ville. It takes it back to a time when “Cruella” was just a mother’s nickname for a misbehaving young girl, a child whose intelligence and love of fashion were clear from the get, but whose constant trips to the headmaster’s office and growing scroll of demerits at school threatened to prevent any of that promise from paying off in adulthood. She was, as we too often say, a “rebel,” constantly letting her mother down. But it wasn’t her mother she was challenging, the adult Cruella, narrating her life story, tells us early on. “It was the world.”
And so: the world. Through a series of unfortunate events — a tragic shock, a shabby London childhood fit for a Dickens novel, and so on — we get the ins and outs of Cruella’s slow embrace of her mischievous alter ego, as well as a tour of her growing wiles, her still-burning aspirations for a career in fashion. We learn just how it is that a pair of co-conspirator lugs, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, funny as ever), become mainstays in her life. Most pertinent, however, is her rise to power — a story built, surprisingly and not, on a veritable death match against another woman: Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), titular icon of Estella’s dream job, the House of Baroness.
So begins a battle of wits and knits, a vying for power in which the “villain” doesn’t get a clean makeover so much as displace the badness onto another villain — in this case, another woman. Cruella was directed by Craig Gillespie, best known, until now, for the image-reorienting I, Tonya, which, very much like Cruella, wrested a public enemy’s story back from the public and and gave the enemy a chance to tell that story on her own terms, racking up all the slights and humiliations that made her who she is. Maybe she’s born with it? Nope — she, like Cruella, was manufactured by circumstance. But the movie made sure to give her just enough inner light, that pinch of redemptive potential, to overcome it all, no matter the movie’s attitude toward the other women in her life, no matter its caricatures of that looming pile of loaded “circumstance.”
You don’t have to buy into that dynamic for a movie like Cruella to be entertaining, which it often enough is, talky and relatively quick on its feet, ably cast with great supporting actors (Mark Strong, among them) and, of course, a few cute dogs. Credit is also due to the music licensing budget, which overloads the story with classics (Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” most notably, the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which, ha!) that, on the other hand, seem to have left the movie’s CGI budget out to dry.
The harsh irony of this operation, however, is that it’s Cruella, not poor li’l Estella, who proves most fun to watch, somewhat on purpose, but only somewhat. Stone, fluctuating accent notwithstanding, is plausibly two-sided, in the way that Anne Hathaway’s harrowed Prada heroine was: frumpy-chic in one scene, a Pygmalion miracle in the next. Comparison to Glenn Close’s Cruella — who remains yet to be outdone by any drag queen tempted to try — wouldn’t be fair; this isn’t that movie. But Stone is relishing the bit, in her way, and so is Thompson, with her mean little one-liners (“Gratitude is for losers”).
The movie can’t help but reinforce what it’s supposedly trying to revise, however, in part because — if the actors are any indication — it’s more fun to play bad. It’s more fun to be the mean queen, dismissive in ways you can’t (or shouldn’t) be in everyday life, with all your witty comebacks already prewritten, your memeable fashions designed expressly to inspire your inner witch. Cruella is never more galvanizing than its petty tit-for-tat and power wrangling. It’s never more pleasurable than when Cruella crashes a fashion gala in a garbage truck, dressed like so much rubbish, to figuratively shit on her foe’s front lawn.
For all its fleshing out of the truth of who Cruella “really is,” the movie can’t escape the pure fact of the bad girl being more fun to watch than her normie alter ego. Cruella’s time and setting allow the movie to render its heroine into an emblem of the Swinging Sixties and beyond, a woman too cool for institutions, too savvy to harness power the old, monied way — but equally apt, somehow, to take advantage of the people around her (so, still somewhat victim to the old norms). Yeah, sure, the movie puts up a little bit of a fight, makes her atone in all the right ways, does what it has to do to remain plausible as a movie for kids, to the extent that children’s fare is still Disney’s main business. I’m honestly not so sure.
But someone’s gotta win, right? And someone’s gotta lose. Ideally, in the framework set forth by I, Tonya and Cruella and their ilk, it’s the monied snobs, the evil power brokers who’ll stop at nothing to remain on top, who’ll lose — the old Cruella among them, in theory. But by the end of Cruella, the night, as they say, is still young, and the potential for a sequel is very much abrew. Maybe evil loses. Maybe not. There’s still time for Cruella to glue on the acrylics and get to work. If she does, I’ll be waiting.
Cruella is in theaters and streaming on Disney+ on Friday, May 28th.