As of late, villain origin stories have been on the rise, giving us a chance to sympathize with characters known for nothing more than being truly evil. Films like Disney’s Maleficent and DC’s Joker have shown us that these natural born monsters are just broken beings who have been pushed past the edge to the point where acts of cruelty are their way to get back at the injustices and/or tragedies placed upon them. If done right, these backstories can be compelling and may help us appreciate or hate them more. Cruella de Vil is the latest baddie to get an origin. The real question is: Why? There are so many other Disney villains out there with more tragic backstories that deserve to be told; Scar from The Lion King or Ursula from The Little Mermaid have compelling reasons to be who they are rather than being just pure evil, while Cruella is known mainly for wanting to skin dalmatians to use them as fur coats. What is to humanize about that? Maybe if we looked into her past, there could be an excuse for this sort of sympathy.
Before she was Cruella de Vil, she was a girl named Estella. From the start, she was a child who grew up teased and tormented by her classmates, eventually picking fights with them and being sent to the principal’s office; her only friend being a dog of all things (Because… why not?). Trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went, ultimately leading to a tragedy involving dogs and a cliff, eventually tying to the meeting of her two cronies, Horace and Jasper. We have our backstory, but what is to follow? All grown up, Estella (Emma Stone) is now a head criminal, who plans jewel heists with Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry), all while aspiring to be a fashion designer. She lands a job working for the ruthless Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson), whose no-nonsense nature gives her no time for safe practices, yet instead specializes in working Estella to the bone while taking “nine-minute power naps”. Thompson sells the harsh demeanor of the Baroness well, making her a much more hateable figure than Cruella. Guaranteed, the movie does its damnedest to make sure you feel for Estella’s transformation as Cruella, yet its tendency for lush costumes and stylistic production seem to sidetrack it from making Cruella a despicable villain, instead making her crimes equal to a spectacular fashion show with nothing going for it, which most of the movie spends its time flaunting instead of telling an actual story. It even has more time conjuring up a soundtrack than it does developing Cruella’s character. With Joker and Maleficent, there were at least traces of evil sprinkled throughout while making you feel these character’s plights. Here, all this effort amounts to nothing and is meant to cash in on the trend of making despicable villains likable.
As for Stone, she does seem to capture the essence of Cruella herself, though it is debatable whether she is a much better incarnation than when Glenn Close delivered her interpretation of the villain back in 1996. I do admit that her performance is at least a step above and the film is more enjoyable than the ’96 film, which was more despicable, droll, and mean-spirited; something that, ironically, forgot to be added to this character.