Disney reeeally wants to make dog hating psychos relatable

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | June 1, 2021

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2.5 out of 5

Cruella de Vil, the black-and-white-haired evildoer from the animated classic 101 Dalmatians, is a truly sinister character: she wants to skin dogs to make a coat. Other Disney villains want power or everlasting good looks. Those goals make at least some sense. But a dalmatian coat? Seems sadistically fickle.

How does Disney make a monster like this someone worth rooting for? With a retcon for the ages.

The bigger surprise is that it almost works.

Trauma is always good for explaining homicidal impulses. In Cruella, it starts when a pack of CG dalmatians gets a girl’s mom killed. The now-orphaned Estella (as she was called in her early days) meets two street kids, Jasper and Horace, and they all grow up to become rather successful career criminals.

But what grown-up Estella (Emma Stone) really wants is to be a fashion maven. Movie luck places her under the tutelage of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a cold-blooded sociopath who runs an haute couture empire. With no one to help her control her worst instincts, Estella’s transformation from ill-tempered woman to full-blown psycho is just a matter of time.

Cruella is at its best when director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) pits the emotionally damaged de Vil (who becomes a stand-in for transgressive designers like Vivian Westwood and Alexander McQueen) against the Baroness (an avatar for traditional fashion houses like Dior and Chanel). It’s a playful and fun spectacle that makes the most of Disney’s unlimited resources.

Too bad the movie is obsessed with giving every element in 101 Dalmatians an origin story, including the car. Cruella could’ve easily been a half-hour shorter without the unnecessary and borderline incoherent story loop towards the end. It’s also heavy-handed: between the constant, CONSTANT needle dropping, voiceovers and what’s happening on screen, even a lobotomized dalmatian would know what Estella’s thinking. A little credit to audience intelligence, please.

Still, Cruella is often entertaining and its top half is aces. Whether this trend of giving villains a backstory to explain their wickedness is worthwhile… well, that’s a whole different conversation. Sometimes people are just evil.