Illustration of Emma Stone as Cruella.
Emma Stone takes on the role of one of Disney's most notorious villains. (Illustration by Lucas DeJesus, Montserrat College of Art)

Does the Live-Action ‘Cruella’ Origin Story Have Potential?

Disney’s upcoming ‘101 Dalmatians’ spin-off has some Disney fans divided. Do we need this classic villain’s backstory?

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Illustration of Emma Stone as Cruella.

Disney’s upcoming ‘101 Dalmatians’ spin-off has some Disney fans divided. Do we need this classic villain’s backstory?

Throughout its nearly 100 years in the entertainment industry, Walt Disney Studios has released hundreds of films and is no stranger to making live-action remakes of their own box-office hits. However, Disney has been making a significant number of remakes over the course of the past decade or so, to a mix of delight and displeasure from fans of the original Disney animated classics.

As recent remakes such as “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” have reinterpreted certain elements from their original animated films, viewers can expect that “Cruella” will surely stray from its predecessor, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” for better or worse. Will “Cruella” present the character in a way the audience does not expect?

Cruella in the Spotlight

Prior to her Disney adaptation, the character of Cruella de Vil originated in Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel “The Hundred and One Dalmatians,” which was originally titled “The Great Dog Robbery” as a serialized magazine story. Soon after, Walt Disney Animation Studios adapted it into a now-classic film, re-titled as “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” in 1961. In both versions of the story, Cruella de Vil is the wealthy and rude owner of a fashion house, who sets out to make a fur coat from the Dalmatians of her former classmate, Anita Radcliffe. In the years since the character’s debut, she has been considered a classic Disney villain and even appeared in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony alongside other famous characters from British literature, such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Voldemort.

Disney’s newest live-action film, “Cruella,” is a crime comedy-drama set in 1970s London. The film follows Estella (Emma Stone), the clever daughter of a laundrywoman who acquires a love for fashion and later desires to be known for her eccentric designs. When Estella’s fashion sense catches the eye of fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), their relationship causes Estella to spiral and embrace her bad side to get revenge on her terrible boss.

In both trailers thus far, there are small hints at the occurrences that lead Estella to turn into the cruel villain we know today, as well as references to the animated film. In addition to this dark descent, there also seem to be a few feminist themes. “I was born brilliant,” Stone’s character says in the trailer, “born bad, and a little bit mad! How does the saying go? I am woman, hear me roar.”

Notably, “Cruella” is believed to follow a similar structure to “Maleficent” (2014), Disney’s first live-action remake designed to showcase the antagonist rather than the beloved hero. Though it was known for Angelina Jolie’s interesting performance as the main character, it was also noted for turning Maleficent from a truly evil villain into a “tragically misunderstood anti-hero,” which is believed by some to be the reason for the film’s unsatisfactory reviews. While “Maleficent” did well in portraying the titular character as someone who had grown into her malevolence, the film also changed Maleficent’s intentions from the 1959 film “Sleeping Beauty,” which ultimately softened the stakes of her curse on Princess Aurora and devalued the character’s evilness.

While “Cruella” could also turn its Disney villain into an anti-hero, it has the potential to maintain what we know of Cruella’s evilness later in her life. The film seems to center around her past as a young woman, taking place years before her appearance in “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Hopefully, the film will stay in this era of Cruella’s life and create a convincing prelude to the villain’s wicked puppy-stealing ways.

Expectations and Cruel Dilemmas

“Cruella” is one of Disney’s first live-action remakes rated PG-13. Historically, it’s always been a risky move for Disney to release PG-13 films with themes based on children’s stories. While the company has released successful PG-13 films, such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series and the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, those franchises did not originate from stories created with young children in mind, nor were they originally animated. Disney’s 1985 animated film “The Black Cauldron” was the studio’s first PG film, and it failed to receive as much money and recognition as most previous Disney projects. Although there were various other reasons for the film’s downfall, “The Black Cauldron” still marked a time in Disney history when a less child-friendly rated film did not reach the success Disney had hoped for. More recently, “Mulan” (2020) was criticized for its PG-13 rating, given that it included less heart and more depictions of violence than the 1998 animated film, which raises questions about what truly matters when it comes to ratings and remakes.

Must a film be intended for older audiences to receive critical acclaim? Disney’s long history of revered PG films says otherwise. However, villainous films such as this one, and other films with violent themes such as “Mulan,” may have been made as PG-13 movies in order to comfortably explore certain themes of violence, while other Disney animated films are more fantasy-based to begin with and don’t need to include PG-13 theatricals to be a convincing remake.

Comparisons made between “Cruella” and other blockbuster films have already caused problems for the film’s early reputation. Shortly after the release of the first “Cruella” trailer, comparisons between the upcoming film and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” emerged online. The “Cruella” director, Craig Gillespie, recently responded to these speculations. “There are some really deep, emotional things that Cruella’s dealing with that send her to the villainous darker side. So in that sense, it is [similar to Joker],” he says. “But it’s definitely its own thing. Just to sort of reframe Cruella, I thought it was important to show this darker side of her. But there’s going to be a lot of fun, a lot of humor in it. There’s a lot of absolutely delightful banter and rhythm to the style of it, which is different from Joker.”

People online have also compared “Cruella” to films such as “The Devil Wears Prada” due to their shared themes of workplace revenge. Both films are surely different enough to appreciate them separately, especially since “Cruella” seems to be focused more on Estella’s villainous transformation in a famous character, which is highly different from anything in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

The Film’s Potential

“Cruella” is scheduled to be released in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on May 28 of this year. Until then, viewers will have to speculate for themselves on how much this film will stick to its original potential of being a fun and unusual Disney villain film.

Ultimately, “Cruella” could surprise Disney fans by taking the recent surge in live-action remakes in a new direction. Though the film is reminiscent of other hit movies, its girl-boss-turned-bad aspect has the potential to successfully portray an anti-hero’s descent into madness and separate the film from other recent Disney releases.


Writer Profile

Alexandra Cortez

Trinity University
English and Communication

As an English and communication major, Alexandra is passionate about all things reading, writing and social media. In her free time, she enjoys writing fiction stories and watching her favorite Disney films.

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