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The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Cruella: Disney’s Guide to Justifying Puppy-cide

Cruella De Vil — Redeemable or Forever a Villain?
Unsplash: GR Stocks
Cruella De Vil undeniably ranks amongst the top-ten most malicious monsters in fiction.

Cruella De Vil undeniably ranks amongst the top-ten most malicious monsters in fiction. The cigarette-toting, fur-coat-loving, crazy-eyed puppy killer is right up there with Harry Potter’s ever-abhorred Dolores Umbridge on the evil scale. Yet Disney took up the challenge of redeeming the seemingly irredeemable for their latest anti-hero live action origin story, “Cruella.”

Directed by Craig Gillespie with an impressive 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “Cruella” was undeniably a hit from the moment it was released on May 28. But did Disney truly succeed in justifying Cruella’s evil deeds, or is the movie’s success better ascribed to its other cinematic features, like two-time Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan’s stunning designs? Truthfully, while “Cruella” was a beautiful movie with award winning actors and fun so-called “Easter eggs” from the beloved cartoon on which it was based, its plucky characters and sometimes perplexing plot line simply do not succeed as a prequel to “101 Dalmatians.”

The first thing Disney did to make Cruella a redeemable character was to portray her as having dissociative identity disorder (sometimes called multiple personality disorder). The movie tracks the life of Cruella’s alter ego, Estella, a rambunctious young prodigy with an eye for style (played by Emma Stone). By establishing Cruella’s background, Disney gave itself an easy explanation for how the intrepid heroine (that the viewers spent the majority of the movie falling in love with) could grow up to become the puppy killer everyone knows and hates.

However, Disney’s opening move could also be taken as a commentary on what makes someone an apparent villain. Cruella has the capacity for both fabulous good and dreadful evil. So, while horrendous evils are certainly a part of Cruella’s being, her capacity for good has the ability to override her inherent evilness. Essentially, Disney argues it is not beating the bad guy that makes one a hero, it is the choice you make every day to do good.

While a nice sentiment, Disney fails to dismantle Cruella’s ‘good side’ nearly enough to successfully reconcile the Cruella we meet in this movie with the villain from “101 Dalmatians.” The only things they have in common are their terrible driving skills and great hair.

Step two on Disney’s quest to redeem Cruella included villainizing Dalmatians and giving Cruella a dog. In the beginning of the movie, we follow Estella through school as she makes friends with Anita – yes, that Anita – and adopts a stray dog. When three Dalmatians push her mother off a cliff, Estella runs off to London and joins a band of thieves, namely Jasper and Horace (played by Joel Fry and Paul Hauser).

The three soon become a pseudo-family and the movie hints strongly that Jasper and Cruella will one day form a romantic relationship. While these strong relationships add depth to Cruella’s character, they do not function logically within the larger plot. This kind of support system should have anchored her (and does throughout the movie), thus conflicting with the idea that Cruella would eventually lose herself so fully to the dark side. Also, Jasper and Horace do not remotely resemble the original duo.

For step three, the movie introduces an even more evil villain than our protagonist. The Baroness (played by the esteemed Emma Thompson) is the queen of the fashion scene in 1970s London. Having always wanted to be a fashion designer, Estella ends up working for the Baroness, uncovering her evil ways, and vowing to knock her off her throne. However, this task is too much for the simple, kind Estella, so Cruella has to take over. Cue step three, part two — have our villain defeat the even eviler villain.

And voila — Cruella is redeemed (per Disney’s standards). Unfortunately for viewers, while the Baroness certainly helped develop Cruella’s descent into villainy and move the story along, the trade-off was making the Baroness a boring, flat character with very little personality beyond her self-serving evilness.

Despite the fact that “Cruella” doesn’t work as a prequel, it remains one of my top movie picks of 2021 due to its sheer celebration of ‘70s punk-rock style and explosion of story. “Cruella” is a heist movie disguised as a coming-of-age story with plenty of action and heart. The characterization and story arc were not enough to convince me that this Cruella could become the puppy killer from “101 Dalmatians,” but maybe you will think differently. “Cruella” is now streaming on Disney+ – check it out and see for yourself: Can Cruella be redeemed or is she forever condemned to villainy?

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