In Disney’s Cruella, Emma Stone serves up a tantalising origin story for the infamous villain.
Good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere – or at least that seems to be Hollywood’s mantra du jour. Of late we have seen Maleficent, Harley Quinn and Killing Eve’s Villanelle romp, swagger and strut their way across screens and Cruella, out on 28 May 2021, caps off this deliciously wicked run.
Emma Stone, in a scene-chewing turn, stars as the eponymous villain with the Disney offering (released in cinemas and via Disney Plus) serving up a tantalising origin story for the infamous villain. Just who was Cruella, the woman, before she got into that whole attempted Dalmatian-skinning, coat-fancying caper?
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The answer is enjoyably complicated. She’s a grieving daughter, a thief, designer, friend and woman craving recognition, affection, and an outlet for her considerable creative talents - and that’s just in the first 20-odd minutes.
Cruella is a deeply satisfying, punk romp through 70s London (the hallowed sartorial ground of Liberty enjoys a star turn) but it also manages to achieve something that Hollywood has long grappled with: namely, letting a woman be a bit bad without any promise of a redemptive arc.
Why be ‘good’, Cruella seems to ask, when you can do what you want? When you can have vengeful fun? When there exists the tantalising lure of the disobedient?
Cruella was always going to be a nail-biting gamble.
Make the character of Cruella too likable, reduce her to too much of a tragic figure, too much of a victim of say, a miserable childhood, and it totally hobbles her as a character; it sucks out her malicious marrow and just renders her pitiful.
However, go too far the other way, offer up only a few sorry, half-hearted explanations for her descent into villainy and the project of reclaiming her narrative will just flounder. An occasional redeeming feature isn’t going to win over audiences so why bother? Just get onto the fun bit with the coat and the dogs.
Instead Stone’s Cruella is haughty, imperious and hurting, her pain rippling beneath layers of grandiose, couture costuming. She is by turns destructive, angry, drunk, heartbroken, ruthlessly single-minded and yet ultimately we come away liking her just fine.
If there is a message here, it’s that it is OK to be a bit broken. It’s just fine to be, as she puts it at one point, “born bad and a little bit mad.”
The unspoken rejoinder here is, because aren’t we all a bit broken, a bit ‘mad and bad’ too?
Cruella’s is a far more interesting moral universe than standard blockbuster fare: mothers aren’t always either perfect or horrendous; friendships have limits; and success comes at a personal cost.
However, at its heart, Cruella is an identity study. Her wholehearted embrace of being bad is not bravado or posturing.
In Cruella, the women are not afraid of being the centre of attention, instead they relish and delight in it with an infectious sort of glee. Indeed, both Stone’s Cruella and Emma Thompson’s delectably enjoyable Baroness possess a remorseless flare for mayhem and the theatrical.
At every turn Cruella does what she wants and is solely guided by her own internal compass, uncowed by social or gender mores. If that is not a lesson that needs to be drummed into women from cradle onwards then I don’t know what does.
The philosophising through line here is the argument that we can’t, and indeed shouldn’t try to, be who other people want us to be. We can’t fight who we really are.
It might be a tad too grandiose to say Cruella amounts to a feminist parable about defying convention but Stone’s proto-anithero does wholly embrace the spirit of ol’ Pelonius’ admonishment, “To thine ownself be true.” (Let it never be said that four years of a classical tertiary education went to waste.)
What is refreshing about Cruella as a character is that she casts off her old skin, so to speak, sloughing off the parts of her identity that no longer serve her with an unapologetic ease.
What makes Cruella so interesting is that when it comes to the central character it doesn’t sermonise, moralise or reduce her to an easily digestible, known quantity. Hearteningly, director Craig Gillespie doesn’t try to make her too easily palatable, at least as far as a Disney offering goes.
It is also refreshingly fun just to get to enjoy such a glorious, visually lush celebration of defiance and bolshiness. Or as Cruella herself says at one point, “I want to make trouble.”
But, what about the coat, I hear you ask. After all, remaking Cruella into some sort of totemic feminist figure is well and good, but flaying Fido in the name of fashion is always a big no-no, so how do the filmmakers solve that?
Gillespie threads this particular needle by creating a situation that demands, how do we know what we know about public figures? What if the things we have come to believe are not grounded in fact but are built on a certain hysterical hyperbole?
There is a lesson in here about the unsettlingly subjective nature of truth and how the media can mangle things that belongs very much in this post-Trump moment.
“Normal is the cruellest insult of all” says the Bowie-esque character of Artie at one point.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Cruella replies, a diabolically wonderful smile on her lips.
And after spending two hours and change submerged in her wonderfully misbehaved, anarchic world, clearly so does Disney.
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