Rhea Chatterji | January 18, 2022
Last year Cruella made a reappearance on screens in a live-action origin story of the fur-fashioned fiend. The film captures the transformation of the villainess—a brash, quirky but sagacious maverick, and the humble but twisted beginnings which induce her maniacal traits.
The film takes its inspiration from the 1961 cartoon, 101 Dalmatians, which debuts Cruella as a vicious, psychopathic heiress out to create fur coats from Dalmatian skin. The cartoon only shares her love for fashion and desire for revenge with the 2021 remake, but it seems that the comparison ends there. Emma Stone’s take on Cruella is more mellow than maniacal. The film strives to humanise and tame her deranged ways, never once displaying her in an amoral light, which makes for a difficult association with the character’s immoral screen history.
We start off with a naïve, broken and confused girl, Estella, who is scarred from the sudden death of her mother at the paws of a pack of Dalmatians. Now homeless, she seeks refuge on the streets of London where she picks up two vagrants, Jasper and Horace, who later become her accomplices. Estella’s dream of becoming a fashion designer leads her to a high-end fashion boutique in London, as part of the janitorial staff. One day in a state of frustration, she rearranges the store’s showcased attire. This draws the attention of the infamously influential couturier, the odious and vain Baroness, who recruits her for the exploitation of her skills. Dame Emma Thompson adopts the role of the Baroness and does well to humanise Cruella. Her deviancy, narcissism and cruelty almost justify the villainess’ transformation. Estella soon learns that the Baroness’ factory is nothing short of a totalitarian regime. It is under this rule however that Estella learns of a dark secret, hidden long ago, which spirals her into the now rebellious maverick, and in an emotionally gripping scene, amends both her name and intentions—“I’m Cruella, born brilliant, born bad…and a little bit mad.”
Cruella’s escapades make for a delightfully entertaining watch. Staying true to her flare for designing, she organises a series of outrageous coups d’état within the fashion industry, stealing focus from the Baroness and her designs. We see Cruella in an enchanting, fiery red ensemble crashing an all-white party hosted by the Baroness; cruising onto a red carpet on a motor cycle in an all leather number; parading over the Baroness’ car upon her entry into a fashion show; and racing through the streets, hanging from a garbage truck, all clad in newspaper clippings in a 40-foot train gown. The special effects here are unfaultable, and for at least 5 minutes, the audience is hooked by the magnificent stunts and loud displays of rebellion, a welcomed creative addition. With Max Wood as the VFX supervisor, the film is sensational in its display of visual effects, with computer graphic Dalmatians, and Cruella’s white cloak which evaporates in flames to reveal a bright carmine laced gown. But the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly a dress beaded with chrysalides, arranged to emerge at the desired time and foil the Baroness’ fashion show with an eclipse of moths. Cruella defied our wildest expectations on the stretches of technology and the heights to which its potential can climb.
Cruella resides in a 1970s punk rock London, hence, the film’s soundtrack is a combination of British rock and pop from the 60s and 70s. It features a signature number composed for the remake, ‘Call me Cruella’ by Florence + the Machine. Radically different from the animated original, the fast-paced, restless, insurgent undertones expressed by the music truly provides new depth and seriousness to the reinvented Cruella. The film too draws influence from marquee names in the fashion industry, from Dior, Givenchy, and Alexander McQueen’s 2011 monarch butterfly dress. With a $100 million budget, the filmmakers spared no expense to bring the outrageous character to life.
Cruella marks the 14th Disney live-action remake of classic animated characters. We’ve seen Mulan, The Lion King, Aladdin and more, yet Cruella leaves a distinctive mark with its soundtrack and cast, witty humour, special effects, and a mixed serving of ambition, hurt, revenge and character metamorphosis.
It is no surprise that remakes in the past have earned themselves a poor reputation. “Big budgets, sensational soundtracks, all-star casts, and special effects” can only take a film so far, and it seems like filmmakers here too purely grazed the surface of the dynamic villain that is Cruella. Her distinguishing features lacked, such as Emma Stone’s clement rendition of Cruella’s psychopathic nature, where Stone delivers much of the dialogue with a calm composure as opposed to the agitated and impatient original. In a conversation with Artie, the owner of the vintage clothing store, Cruella’s desperation and fury are dampened by a cool, collected and knowingly scripted speech. “I want to make art, Artie, and I want to make trouble.” This mild representation of a hot head makes for a difficult association with the animated film. When re-inventing a beloved character, it is important to remain true to their intricate qualities. While revisions are expected, they must be wise so as to not entirely eradicate the mien of the original and do it justice.
Even Cruella’s signature cigarette holder was prevented from featuring, because Disney did not want to advocate smoking to its younger audience. Stone explained this decision in an interview with the New York Times, “That is not allowed in 2021… I was so excited to have that green plume of smoke in there, but it was not possible.”
Perhaps the most drastic revision made in the 2021 film is Cruella’s sudden tolerance for dogs, and Dalmatians at that! Film critics believe the film attempted to adopt the let them eat cake theory on whether Cruella does, or in fact doesn’t, murder Dalmatians, but lives with the reputation, nonetheless.
Cruella is a product of Disney’s current mission to contemporise its characters, humanise its villains and cater to the sensitivities of its audience. At its core however, it serves as a reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.