What it is: The story of how Estella went from gifted thief, to one of Disney’s most controversial and disliked villains, Cruella de Vil. Following Estella from a young age where tragedy shifts her to a hard existence, to explaining how she became the narcissistic fashionista with a pension for Dalmatian coats.
What Nika thought: Cruella de Vil will forever be the Disney villain who’s claim to fame is a dog skin coat. It would be hard to imagine a more diabolical plot for a kids story than skinning puppies, yet Cruella’s updated version seems determined to succeed. Rooted in an origin story that feels rushed, Estella (Emma Stone) quickly morphs from socially suffering child to inventive thief after the loss of her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham). An orphan suffering from misguided guilt, she hides her true nature deep within a passive persona.
Estella conforms to her new life, flanked by an upgraded Horace (Paul Walker Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), saving the intense emotions she held as a child for her aspirations of becoming a fashion designer.
But it’s when she finally gets an opportunity to display her talents that she finds out the truth about her hero the Baroness (Emma Thompson), and her life, setting her into a tail spin that releases her id personality Cruella back into the world.
The re-emergence of Cruella provides some of the more highly charged scenes of the film, her flair and drive for vengeance inspiring even as she grapples with limits. Estella seizes to be the malleable center for Cruella’s mental status and we witness the path meant to explain a person capable of fathoming a coat made from man’s best friend.
Nika’s Grade: B, While I am ecstatic at Disney’s drive to dismantle the very good versus evil base that encompasses all their original films, I struggled with the deconstruction of Cruella’s character.
There is no question that Cruella de Vil fails to share the same adoration as Maleficent, but that may be rooted in her choice of villainy. To create a story that would draw empathy for her would take a monumental effort, and creating a counter villain with equal, if not more depravity, would seem like a good start.
But the issue lies in how the focus rests more on Estella’s personality shift from passive team player to attention grabbing Cruella. Cruella’s persona is viewed as dramatic, malevolent, and amongst her closest friends, narcissistic, yet it accomplishes it’s intention well enough to pit her against another woman who self describes herself the same. The idea that two powerful women, driven and successful, could not exist outside a world of severe mental illness seems off-putting. As Estella, Cruella continuously questions whether she is descending into madness, a label often attributed to women with strong personalties. More so she questions whether she can escape the path seemingly laid before her by her genetic makeup, consistently fighting her own sense of self worth in fear of seeming too much. And why there is little doubt that the competitive level of the Baroness lacks morality, I cringed at the multiple times her flamboyant nature was compared to evil attributes.
Horace and Jasper are certainly better fleshed out characters than their cartoon counterparts, exchanging the role of comedic henchmen for empathetic moral compasses, but they feel more based in patriarchal judges of how women are allowed to succeed.
Even the introduction of boutique owner Artie (John McCrea) seemed awkwardly clunky, despite its direct acknowledgment of non-gender conformity. Artie’s character slips easily into a fashion based Disney story even if it follows tropes. Disney should be commended for trying to incorporate a much needed representation.
The film’s makeup and fashion are the true stars, wrapping Stone’s demure Cruella in jaw dropping, eye seducing works of art. It’s all the fabric that was missing from The Devil Wears Prada, without the intensity that made Miranda Priestly an icon, and Thompson’s Baroness a faint comparison.
Cruella is worth the rental for its visual appeal and gifted application of musical soundtrack, reminding us why seeing Miss de Vil inspires a sudden chill. But a chill is all that Cruella will bring, for what may be the backstory of one of the most evil of Disney villains, it only serves to prove that what truly drives women mad, are the limitations.
Cruella is currently playing on Disney+ with a premier upgrade and in theaters. It will be released for all Disney+ viewers on August 21.
Viewed for your benefit by your Melanin Gifted Film Critic.