“Am I going to have to catch you up a lot, or can you keep up?”
Well, I guess I’ll catch you up if you did happen to miss Disney’s fabulous new film, Cruella (2021). But, to emulate a Cruella-like attitude, let’s start with me first. 101 Dalmatians (1961), the classic animated film Cruella was born out of, was my first ever obsession. As a toddler, I had a million different toy dalmatians in my bedroom–and, to this day, a vivid memory of tragically losing one of them while shopping in a pool supplies store. I watched the movies every day, and I would even dress up like the little spotted dogs for Halloween, and sometimes, just for fun.
So, when I heard Disney created a prequel to the dalmatian films, my heart leaped with both excitement and fear. Excitement to return to that beloved tale and a fear that a piece of my childhood would tarnish with lazy storytelling familiar to today’s blockbuster prequel/sequel films that solely seek to exploit nostalgia to make a buck.
Cruella centers on the origin story of the infamous puppy-napping villain, Cruella de Vil. From her childhood beginnings as a feisty schoolgirl named Estella who stands out with her curiosity, fashion sense, and dual-toned hair, we experience her traumas and triumphs as she becomes the wickedly fashionable Cruella. The film shows her rags to designer riches, starting as an orphan thief living and thieving alongside other orphan thieves: Jasper, Horace, and their adorable one-eyed chihuahua named Wink. Eventually, Estella’s eye for fashion (paired with her impulsive knack for self-serving chaos) lands her a position with one of London’s most notorious designers, the Baroness, played by Emma Thompson.
As Estella comes to realize her new boss’s devilish arrogance, as well as a shocking secret involving the Baroness’ vicious dalmatians and a fallen family member, Cruella begins to develop into a revenge-seeking fashion force. The pair rival each other as older and younger versions of a similar wickedness and need for hierarchical dominance in the fashion industry. They duke it out with stunning ensembles, dognapping, and complete destruction.
This film is stunning in many ways. First and foremost, and most obviously, the costumes are immaculate. Since fashion makes up the bulk of the narrative, this film goes all out to create looks that could (and probably would) kill. Another major draw to this film is the casting. This Emma Stone, Emma Thompson face-off is a war-of-the-Emma’s the world never knew it needed. They are both charmingly cruel boss-ladies who make me shiver with fear and awe just thinking about their powerful attitudes.
My two favorite elements of this film are the soundtrack and the dogs. Set in the 1970s, the film includes many iconic late 60’s/early 70’s rock-and-roll staples such as “Five to One” by the Doors and, of course, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. There are also some great cover songs featured on the soundtrack and a nostalgic title track, “Call me Cruella,” which is a play on the Cruella de Vil jingle from the original animated film. The hauntingly beautiful voice of Florence + The Machine provides this new rendition of the classic tune.
But the DOGS! They may be a little less important to this film than in the 101 Dalmatians franchises, but puppies still play a role in Cruella, nonetheless. Wink and Estella’s scruffy companion, Buddy, make for the perfect sidekicks to Estella/Cruella, Jasper, and Horace’s criminal antics. One thing I wasn’t totally in love with was that the Baroness’ pack of dalmatians was predominantly computer-generated. After watching this film, I re-watched the other live-action dalmatian movies, and the non-CG dalmatians just had a better look and feel, in my opinion. But this is “the future.” Besides, the dalmatians in Cruella are meant to be vicious attack dogs, and from a production standpoint, I can see how using non-CG dogs for those roles is practically impossible.
The overall message of this film could be many things. It portrays the empowerment of strong and brilliantly talented women, the dark side of industrial competition, the nature of pitting strong females against other strong females, the battle for dominance between the future and the past. Whatever the intended message be, this movie is just a ton of fun. It answered many mysteries of Cruella’s background that, after watching the other dalmatian films, were completely neglected. And the combination of the rock-and-roll soundtrack, the killer costumes, and the adorable animals made for an enjoyable movie-watching experience. I would say that this may be one of Disney’s better live-action films in a long time.
Watching Cruella channeled my younger, dalmatian-obsessed self. It provided her with both nostalgia and a fresh new story, and she was not disappointed.