Given that I grew up enjoying the 1996’s 101 Dalmatians live-action film, I knew I wanted to see how Disney approached one of its most iconic villains. Now, we all know that Disney’s recent releases of live-action remake films, like The Lion King, The Lady and The Tramp, and Aladdin, are not exactly a new trend. Disney, if you think about it, is trying to sell us the same meat and potatoes, but just with slightly more salt (or butter, I don’t know how you eat your meat and potatoes, but you get the idea).
I could write a review about what I liked and didn’t like about Cruella, but why bother when websites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB have already done the job? Instead, let’s explore the many shades of Cruella de Ville. How did the fur-obsessed Cruella de Ville become the eccentric woman she is today?
The Rebellious Anarchist
Set in the 1970s with the London punk scene in the air, there is no doubt that the young Cruella needed to overcome any obstacle that stood in the way. With the villain of the story, the Baroness, being sculpted as a snobby posh figure akin to being this powerful, dominant government (i.e., the establishment), Cruella consequently takes on the role of being this ambitious rebellious anarchist, willing to do anything and everything in her power to get rid of this “exploitative power structure” so she is the only one left with power and glory (FilmSpeak). By upstaging the Baroness, little by little, Cruella becomes the fantastic catalyst that cripples the Baroness’ pride, and more importantly, her power.
Now for the record, Cruella isn’t the hero of the recent 2021 film. She’s still wickedly evil. Just look at her full name: Cruella de Ville. Most protagonists who rebel against a prominent body of power do so on behalf of others. Think of the Rebel Alliance in the Star Wars universe, the Founding Fathers in the American Revolution, people who selflessly put others before them. Cruella is by no means a rebel without a cause, but she acts in hopes of taking the Baroness’ pride, her fame, her reputation, and most importantly her confidence for herself so she can dominate everyone else (including her henchmen) underneath. She, essentially, wants to rule the London fashion scene with an iron first just as Baroness has.
“I want to make art, … and I want to make trouble. You in?” – Cruella de Ville from Disney’s Cruella (2021)
The Female Joker (The Sympathetic Villain)
Though it is understood that the Joker and Cruella are villains of a different caliber, what is similar from their respective origin films is in their unfortunate upbringing. Now, the Joker and Cruella both definitely have had more than their fair share of hardships in their childhoods. With the young Joker being constantly bullied and ridiculed, with Cruella having her adoptive mother being murdered by the biological mother (which is nothing new in Disney’s films, given their history of orphans — I’m looking at you Simba from The Lion King), the trauma gives both villains more color and humanity, as both circumstances mold the villains into who they come to be. They are shaped by their environment. The origin stories of both the Joker and Cruella are essentially tales of the classic nature versus nurture debate (The Take). They weren’t automatically evil by birth but embraced evil as a response to life’s merciless gut punches. You can hardly help but feel sympathetic to what they’ve gone through, but because you were introduced to them as the bad guys you still (or at least try to) resist the urge.
“From the very beginning, I realized I saw the world differently than everyone else. That didn’t sit well with some people. But I wasn’t for everyone. I guess they were all scared… that I’d be… a psycho.” – Cruella de Ville from Disney’s Cruella (2021)
The Madwoman Archetype (A Woman of Power)
When it comes to how Cruella was envisioned, creators such as Craig Gillespie — the director of the film — used the madwoman archetype as an outline to develop Cruella’s character (Vulture). What Gillespie had in mind was to create Cruella to be this woman who “has this inner voice and she has this talent she’s trying to express. But she’s penalized for it because it’s outside of the constructs of society at the time. She’s in this rigid English system where you can’t be outside the lines” (Vulture). The director wanted the setting of 1970’s London to also be an obstacle to Cruella’s rise to power. At the start of the film, the character’s initial introduction as bold, young Estella is immediately othered and ostracized from all the other boys and girls (except her only friend, Anita Dahling). Young Estella’s refusal to abide by the restrictive London norms already make her a target and an outlier that many want to oppress. The madwoman archetypical design is, in a nutshell, used to imagine Cruella as a woman of authority and command, who refuses to back down. Others also argued Cruella’s archetypical design to be similar to today’s standard as a modern iconic feminist. Cruella is certainly not a trailblazer in the world of cinema, but she’s certainly not the least powerful either.
“How does the saying go? I am woman. Hear me roar.” – Cruella de Ville from Disney’s Cruella (2021)
The Jekyll and Hyde Complex (The Psychological Duality)
It’s no surprise that Cruella and her persona of Estella are two different sides of the same coin, one side being someone who is not afraid to stand out in a crowd and the other side being sheltered and repressed (The Atlantic). Even Cruella’s iconic white and black hair color is symbolic of her struggle in identity. The duality of two personalities is nothing new in the field of psychology, with Cruella being the id whenever she has a lust for mischief (and more importantly, revenge) and Estella being the ego who only adheres to authority. The line could not be any more blurred, as “Cruella herself has to constantly clarify which of her alter egos she is embracing at a given moment. “I’m Cruella,” she will say to her colleagues and the fourth wall. “Are you Cruella or Estella?” other characters will ask” (The Atlantic).
My nemesis is my real mother, and she killed my other mother. I guess you were always scared, weren’t you, that I’d be a psycho like my real mum? Hmm? That explains all the “tone it down, try and fit in” stuff. Love me into shape, I suppose, was the plan. And I tried. I really, I tried because I loved you. But the thing is, I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might. I never was.” – Cruella de Ville from Disney’s Cruella (2021)
While the shades of Cruella (or Estella) can give us a more in-depth idea of who Cruella is, Cruella ultimately is someone who embraces individuality. The unique thing about Cruella is, unlike other Disney villains, she doesn’t have any magical powers or abilities, but is a victim possessed by vanity and greed. Cruella, though, is a villain who embraces individuality all while “punking it up” with a captivating flair (The Take). All in all, Cruella reminds us that we can all learn to embrace our authentic selves— just as long as we don’t skin any Dalmatians.
The thing is, I was born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad. I’m Cruella. – Cruella de Ville from Disney’s Cruella (2021)