‘Cruella’ is the origin story of a puppy killer

Sonia Rao

THE WASHINGTON POST – The sage advice is to let sleeping dogs lie, but the new film Cruella couldn’t resist shaking the poor creatures awake to the plight of a woman known for trying to murder them. It serves as a prequel to the animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians and dares to ask, what if someone were to explore what made Cruella de Vil so, well, cruel?

If few thought to pose the question before, that’s arguably because it didn’t need to be asked at all. There is enough to the villain as she is, already portrayed twice in live-action by a delightfully over-the-top Glenn Close. Sometimes it is best to accept things at face value, and an English woman’s stubborn desire to skin Dalmatian puppies for fur coats presents a shining example.

And yet Disney decided we did need to know more, making this the latest project to more cynically be read as a corporation’s attempt to capitalise on existing intellectual property. Starring Emma Stone in the title role, Cruella also premieres on the heels of Timothée Chalamet’s casting as young Willy Wonka in a Warner Bros prequel – news that prompted jokes about the deranged chocolatier’s potential origin, including parallels to the oft-depicted murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Perhaps it is only fitting that Cruella, too, is motivated by the trauma of witnessing her mother’s death.

But unlike with Batman, this eventually leads Cruella to choose evil over good – clashing with director Craig Gillespie’s attempt to girlbossify the character into a troubling but sympathetic figure. And so the film shoehorns in an almost admirably ludicrous explanation for her lack of regard for canine lives, which is to depict a trio of Dalmatians pushing her mother off a balcony. Thus begins the tragedy of one Estella de Vil, whose dark impulses earned her the nickname Cruella.

We jump to her young womanhood from there, with Stone stepping in to play a now-thieving Estella in 1970s London. She kicks off a career in high fashion by working for an egocentric designer named the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who will inevitably earn comparisons to Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada. That film’s writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, earns a story credit here alongside Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis, with the screenplay credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara.

Emma Stone plays the title role in the live-action film Cruella. PHOTO: DISNEY

How Cruella came to combine the forces of an acclaimed rom-com writer (Brosh McKenna) and an actor known for mumblecore (Zissis) is somewhat of a mystery – and perhaps the origin story this reporter would actually like to learn. The question lingers alongside the film’s tonal inconsistencies. Even if one were to listen to the earlier advice to not overthink certain things (eg the existence of Cruella), it goes without saying that accepting its being doesn’t require embracing its messy execution.

Were Stone just playing a punk designer without an implied desire to skin puppies, perhaps Cruella could have been the film it so clearly wants to be. The actress brandishes the same wit and jagged edges displayed by her Oscar-nominated turn in The Favourite (co-written by McNamara, also nominated), and Thompson manages a tricky combination of funny while merciless. Jenny Beavan’s intriguing costumes are among the more successful elements of the film, and could very well have bolstered a plot about a budding fashion designer eclipsing her mentor.

But Cruella is one of several recent live-action Disney movies to revisit established characters – it had dues to pay. Speaking to Vulture four years ago, Sean Bailey, president of Motion Picture Production at Walt Disney Studios, took an eagle-eyed view of the media conglomerate’s properties.

“If Iron Man and Thor and Captain America are Marvel superheroes, then maybe Alice, Cinderella, Mowgli, and Belle are our superheroes, and Cruella and Maleficent are our supervillains,” Bailey said. “Maybe if there’s a way to reconnect with that affinity for what those characters mean to people in a way that gets the best talent and uses the best technology, that could become something really exciting. It feels very Disney, playing to the competitive advantages of this label.”

A businessman engaging in business-speak is no surprise, but it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which the “competitive advantages” of nostalgia and general familiarity didn’t dictate the very existence of these films. There can be little room for originality while working within the confines of such popular source material, especially coming from a studio as risk-averse as this one.