- Disney’s live-action prequel, Cruella, struggles to connect with the original 101 Dalmatians story and alters the character to a point where it would have been better to have a film centered around an original character.
- The movie fails to address the fact that Cruella De Vil is a puppy killer, a defining characteristic of her villainous persona from the original film. It’s unclear how Disney will address this in future family-friendly installments.
- Cruella deviates from the tragic backstory of the character, making her less cruel than her iconic villain image. The film misses the mark in capturing the essence of Cruella De Vil as a truly wicked antagonist.
Back in 1961, audiences were introduced to one of the most wicked Disney villains ever created. Cruella De Vil, a clever play on “cruel devil,” was originally based on the character from Dodie Smith’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. She was an heiress and fashion designer with a violent obsession with Dalmatians.
Disney began a trend of reinventing their villains in live-action prequels telling their side of the story. The first was Maleficent (2014), Sleeping Beauty‘s evil sorceress who could turn into a dragon and put the title princess into her deep slumber. In 2021, it was Cruella‘s turn to rewrite the past. While Maleficent managed to weave its tale around the original story of Sleeping Beauty, Cruella didn’t make as much sense trying to connect to 101 Dalmatians. The character was so different it would have been better to have made the film about an original character or someone related to Cruella with their own story, not a misguided but entertaining prequel of the villain.
Sympathy for a Puppy Killer Is a Bad Look for Disney
Disney has prided itself on keeping their entertainment family-friendly for decades. Even when they began going the villain origin route, the films had a positive spin and mostly implied darker parts of the stories, such as Maleficent having her wings torn off by Stefan being a metaphor for sexual assault. Cruella seems to ignore the darkest but most central evil deed she’s known for, which is kidnapping and attempting to skin puppies. There is a scene where Cruella stages a protest fashion show to outdo The Baroness. She plays “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges and implies she murdered The Baroness’s dogs to make the clothing. Later, she reveals, “I didn’t, but people do need a villain to believe in, and I’m happy to fit the bill.” The scene is exciting and rebellious, but before the truth about the dogs is revealed, it’s confusing whether the movie encourages viewers to root for or against Cruella’s deeds. The Baroness is a cruel villain all her own, but who Cruella grows into in the film is not much better. Her intentions to take The Baroness’s place in the fashion world, essentially becoming her, aren’t admirable either.
Cruella De Vil is a puppy murderer. In the original film, her obsession with Dalmatians comes from wanting to use their fur to make herself a coat. But she doesn’t want just any Dalmatians — she specifically wants puppy fur. She thinks the material will be softer if it uses the youthful skin of puppies. If there is one thing these villain origin movies have had in common so far, it’s the sympathetic angle they try to give the villain by showing it from their perspective, but with Disney already planning a sequel, they can’t continue to ignore Cruella’s defining act of actually killing dogs. It’s difficult to think of how they will pull that off while keeping the movie family-friendly since Cruella has been the darkest live-action villain origin film Disney has made so far.
The Prequel Doesn’t Connect With the Original Film
Cruella does create the tragic backstory of The Baroness’s vicious Dalmatians killing Cruella’s mother, which would have been a clever way of showing the life event that triggered her descent into revenge against them for her love of fashion. However, even at a young age, this version of Cruella knew that the dogs were controlled by The Baroness and that revenge should be taken out on her, not her dogs. Cruella successfully does this by the end of the prequel by getting The Baroness arrested for murder and getting the deed to her estate. In the prequel, Cruella is in her 20s, but in the cartoon, she is middle-aged, so there are still about 20 years of time from the end of the prequel until the classic story of 101 Dalmatians for her to become the villain fans know. The only problem is that the tragic backstory given for that is already solved, so there would need to be something else that happens to Cruella after the prequel to drive her to peak cruelty by 101 Dalmatians. The strangest difference is how, at the end of the prequel, Cruella is the one who gifts Perdita the Dalmatian to Anita and Pongo to Roger. Cruella’s personal attachment to the dogs could add another level of cruelty to the character by making her not care and even forget when she’s older and wants them. More likely, though, this addition to the Cruella prequel doesn’t make sense at all. It’s almost like she’s playing matchmaker for them, which adds nothing to the plot and, if anything, messes with it more.
While the first part of Maleficent is set before the events of Sleeping Beauty, it does eventually catch up to that story’s timeline. Maleficent’s first entrance after hiding herself away from humans and plotting her revenge is Aurora’s birth. The movie put the most pivotal moment of both her and Aurora’s character into the film. Maleficent had grown cold, and while she wasn’t the nicest person after being scorned, her cruelty as a villain was targeted on Aurora because it was the thing the king loved most. The king is now Stefan, who had used her wings as his leverage to get to the throne. He destroyed her heart, so she was going to do the same through his child. Lining up the origin film with the original gives the movie more freedom to change the character since audiences have already seen the familiar part that lines up with Sleeping Beauty. The changes are further into the film and go on in between and after the original film’s events, including the discovery that Maleficient actually cares for Aurora. Even then, the movie works in bits from the original into its changes, such as her familiar turning into a dragon instead of her, which makes more sense with his abilities. Maleficient shows viewers the horrible treatment and trickery done to her by humans to lead to her turning evil for revenge. It also doesn’t shy away from her villainous side.
Both Maleficient and Cruella do a good job of using costumes to portray the dark sides of Maleficient and Cruella. Maleficent’s costume goes from long, loose hair and a simple tan dress to a devil-like black latex number. Cruella goes from dying her hair red and wearing urchin-like outfits to her iconic black and white hair with bolder fashion. On the downside, it makes her two-toned hair a natural feature instead of a fashion piece and gets dangerously close to insinuating she has an outdated portrayal of multiple personalities. This was added to the story, and the original never implied this.
Audiences aren’t alone if conflicted about Cruella because the movie was good, but it didn’t feel like it was about the Cruella character. Even with the elements of the characters they kept, they took out the worst of them that made her the iconic villain she is to 101 Dalmatians. Unlike Maleficent, the film isn’t trying to redeem a villain after their bad deeds. Cruella feels like it tried to erase parts of the character that remind viewers how awful the villain was.
If Disney had made the movie about an original character, perhaps Cruella’s daughter trying to fight against her mother’s shadow on her own life, then the concept could have worked. With the sequel to the prequel on its way, Disney has time to make her descent into the villain fans know her as closer to the original.
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