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Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians

One of the biggest stories surrounding Disney’s dominant 2019 has been the powerhouse studio’s continued success with the live-action remakes of its own animated classics. With over $7 billion from remakes in less than a decade and two $1 billion titles just this year, Disney won’t be abandoning this strategy anytime soon (until it runs out of classics to remake, of course).

Next on the docket though is 2020’s Mulan, which looks fantastic, but is courting its own various controversies that Disney will have to contend with. Then in December 2020... scratch that, May 2021, comes Cruella, and while we have yet to see anything from that film, there is one concern we already have.

Cruella stars Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil, the villain from Disney’s 1961 animated classic 101 Dalmatians. Unlike most of Disney’s live-action remakes, which are direct adaptations of the animated films, Cruella will be a prequel and act as an origin story of sorts for the Disney villain, presumably similar to what was done with Maleficent.

The problem with that approach, or at least the concern we have from our current vantage, is that Cruella will ask us to follow, empathize with and root for a character who will go on to try and murder puppies, and nothing that could possibly happen in this film will redeem her, justify her future actions or even make them understandable.

Let’s take Maleficent as a template for what Cruella could be, since that’s Disney’s only live-action reimagining so far that has focused on the villain as the main character. Maleficent put a new spin on the story by telling us "the truth" behind the tale of Sleeping Beauty, following Angelina Jolie’s powerful fairy as she is betrayed and violated by her love Stefan.

Angelina Jolie in Maleficent

Seeing things from her perspective makes her actions understandable. Cursing the infant Aurora is a horrible act, but it is an act of revenge, born out of pain by someone who has been hurt very badly and no longer believes in love. I wasn’t personally a fan of Disney taking, in my opinion, its most iconic villain and making her more misunderstood than villainous, but it works in the context of the story Maleficent tells.

Now contrast this with the Cruella de Vil we know from 101 Dalmatians. In the original film, Cruella de Vil is a wealthy heiress and former schoolmate of Perdita’s owner Anita. She is obsessed with fur and wants to make fur coats out of the Dalmatians, going so far as to hire a pair of henchmen to steal the dogs.

Cruella is a despicable and cruel character (it’s right there in the name), whose vanity, selfishness and lack of empathy for other living creatures drives her to heinous acts.

The live-action film has been described as having a “punk vibe,” and while some reports said it would be set in the '80s, according to Collider, it will take place in 1970s London in the high fashion world. Emma Stone’s character will be a lowly department store worker who sees a rich woman called the Baroness wearing her deceased mother’s locket, which was lost at the Baroness’ estate the night she died. The film will follow Cruella’s attempt to get it back in what sounds like an Ocean’s Eight meets The Devil Wears Prada story.

Regardless of whether that premise is correct or not, Cruella will presumably explain why the dalmatians are so important to the character’s backstory and what events precipitated and possibly spurred her actions in 101 Dalmatians. Maybe the Baroness had dalmatians or other dogs that bit Cruella or something like that, an event that cemented her hatred for dogs and love of fur.

Sorry, but I don’t care what happened to Cruella or what struggles she went through. If a dog bit her, too bad. Neither the tragic death of her mother, nor the struggle at a dead end job, nor a feud with a rich and powerful enemy. Nothing makes stealing and murdering puppies to make fur coats a relatable or understandable act. That makes a film where Cruella is the protagonist a tough sell.

Cruella driving in a fit of rage

Maleficent was taking revenge on a person who had wronged her, but Cruella enacted her evils on innocent animals, which, by their very nature, didn't bear any responsibility for her ills. And I don’t think we can undersell that audiences allowed for some moral flexibility with Maleficent’s actions because they take place in a fantasy world. Cruella will take place in a world that quite similar to our own, where many of us have dogs as pets.

Cruella is different from a lot of other Disney villains in her evils. Ursula wanted power rule the seas, Jafar the power to rule Agrabah, Scar wanted to be king and Gaston wanted Belle, but Cruella wants to spill blood to make herself a fancy coat. If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. There’s a difference there.

This isn’t a case of a villain like Magneto, who has an ideology and does the wrong things for the right reason. You can understand his actions even if you don’t agree with them. There is no nuance in puppy murder. Killing pets like that is something serial killers do, and I don’t know how you have a protagonist like Cruella whose destiny will lead her to that. It’s a big ask to invest in a character whose future actions are that unjustifiable.

This is a major concern in my mind for Cruella, and in many ways makes such an origin story untenable. However, despite these reservations, I expect Disney could and probably has found a way to make it work and there are some possibilities on that front.

On the one hand, this film could embrace Cruella’s villainy and instead of making her a misunderstood, sympathetic character, let her become the full on evil, detestable harpy she always has been. Watching the making of a villain is a pretty cool thing as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (the book), the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Breaking Bad proved.

Cruella director Craig Gillespie previously directed I, Tonya, which followed figure skater Tonya Harding. While not excusing Harding’s actions, that film takes a comedic look at her life and audiences could see how her struggles informed the deeply flawed person she became. You never root for Tonya Harding though. But Cruella is a Disney movie and it is not Disney’s way to do that kind of thing or to have an unlikable protagonist.

Emma Stone in The Favourite

Emma Stone is brilliant casting as Cruella, and as she proved in The Favourite, she can play a truly nasty, selfish character. Yet it seems unlikely the studio would make a Cruella-centric movie where she really gets to be the bad guy and becomes the villain we all know by film’s end. Maleficent is testament to that. As is the fact that Emma Thompson is in talks to join the cast, possibly as the Baroness. Some reports on her casting have pegged her as the villain. That would make Emma Stone’s Cruella de Vil, future dead animal wearer, you guessed it, the hero.

Another approach would take a cue from Maleficent, which pitched itself as the truth behind the Sleeping Beauty tale. In that way, Cruella could basically retcon the story of Cruella de Vil and 101 Dalmatians, similar to the way the Fast & Furious franchise is constantly retconning the actions of its villains so they can join the team.

Maleficent changed Maleficent’s history and motivations, but she still cursed Aurora. Cruella would have to make it so that Cruella wasn’t really stealing the dalmatians to turn them into coats in 101 Dalmatians. Instead, she had some other motivation, like trying to save them or something like that. Making this not a prequel, but essentially an alternate reality story with a different Cruella. That seems like the most likely approach and perhaps the only way this film could work for such a despicable character.

This would fundamentally alter the entire story and completely defang the character, but Cruella is a reimagining. While that wouldn’t be my preference, we all lament when Disney’s live-action remakes don’t take any risks or make changes to the originals.

I expect Disney and director Craig Gillespie have cracked how to tackle the story of Cruella de Vil, and Cruella will come out and be a financial success just like most of Disney’s live-action remakes have been. But for the moment, the abhorrent actions and loathsome nature of the character are a major concern for her origin film.

Cruella now opens in theaters on May 28, 2021. Check out our guide to keep track of all of Disney’s upcoming live-action remakes.

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