As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people—or in this case, puppies. Cruella is the latest film in a recent barrage of villain origin stories that attempt to humanize antagonists by inventing past trauma. And as with other mononymous prequels, including Maleficent and Joker, Cruella leaves us wondering why. Part heist, part mystery, the movie is fun, stylish, and over the top (in mostly a good way), but it struggles to prove that it’s more than a muddled cash grab. Buried under couture looks and a pop song–riddled soundtrack is a film attempting to say something edgy about women’s genius being stifled and the futility of playing by the rules. Instead of achieving this goal, Cruella romanticizes girlbosses who treat those around them poorly in order to claw their way to the top. Just because a movie leaves audiences with unanswered questions doesn’t mean it needs a prequel. And just because a villain is a woman doesn’t mean she needs to be redeemed.
Set in the ’60s and ’70s, Cruella first introduces viewers to the vampy fur obsessive during her childhood, which is, of course, tragic. Born Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) with naturally two-toned hair, the future puppy-napper is a goodhearted but erratic and strong-willed child. Her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), gives her the nickname “Cruella,” and while she recognizes her daughter’s talent for fashion design, she also encourages her to suppress her wild side in order to stay out of trouble. Predictably, Estella ignores her mother’s advice and is expelled from school, setting off a chain of events that end in disaster. Catherine dies in a much-mocked scene involving—you guessed it—dalmations, and orphaned Estella begins a life of petty crime after befriending two young pickpockets. Ten years later, Estella (Emma Stone) is still living with her comrades Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
Though the three are getting by as thieves, Estella still dreams of breaking into the fashion world. She gets her chance during a zany mishap at the Liberty department store where she works, when she catches the eye of renowned, egomaniacal designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who offers her a job. This is when the prequel really begins: Estella slowly transforms into Cruella as she learns more about the Baroness, discovers truths about her own past, and unapologetically embraces her talent. Cruella is undeniably entertaining, and there are plenty of bright spots, but with a run time of more than two hours, it’s about 30 minutes too long. The writers use that extra half hour to insert tidbits from Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and introduce other familiar characters. In Cruella, Estella knows journalist Anita Darling (Florisa Kamara at age 12, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as an adult) from school, just as she does in Smith’s book, and songwriter Roger Dearly (Kayvan Novak) can be heard singing Mel Leven’s “Cruella de Vil” from the 1961 animated movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
The main cast’s performance is also a highlight: In Cruella, as in The Favourite, Stone proves she’s good at being bad, Thompson is delightfully deranged as the Baroness, and the rest of the actors are clearly having a blast. The needle drops are crowd pleasing, albeit a bit much (I rolled my eyes when Blondie’s “One Way or Another” began playing over a montage of Cruella’s subversive fashion moments). And the costumes by Oscar-winning designer Jenny Beavan are as fabulous as those familiar with her work expected them to be. But when it comes to the plot, the movie begins to fall apart. In an Associated Press interview, Thompson describes the film as a “redemption story going backwards.” If the prequel was intended to redeem its namesake as Thompson says, it misses the mark. The movie doesn’t quite know who it wants this new Cruella to be. Is she a villain? An antihero? An anti-villain? In transforming her from an innately evil millionaire to an orphan who has independently overcome obstacles through inborn genius and hard work, Disney—one of the largest corporations in the world—is telling on itself.
More important, most people with difficult childhoods don’t become puppy killers. In fact, no part of the past Disney has created for Cruella indicates she will eventually skin dalmations, and the movie never explicitly explains why she despises them. Instead the film repeatedly indicates that despite her mom’s death, she not only tolerates but actively likes dogs. Although the movie intends to illuminate her motivations, they remain remarkably unclear. The ending, in particular, is a head-scratcher. Cruella offers more filler than useful information, and it feels like a prequel to a prequel, setting the stage for additional trauma to come. (Both Stone and Thompson have said they would do another movie to fill in the gaps, but sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.) It’s also difficult to make sense of the film’s distorted politics. In the same AP interview, Thompson says that Cruella tackles “the idea of a woman being ruthless in order to release her creativity.” Sounds like some girlboss nonsense! She goes on to quote her character, who tells Cruella, “If I cared about anyone or thing, I might have died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness.”
In addition to the fact that you can’t brush off animal abuse (Cruella’s entire schtick), bad behavior doesn’t become feminist simply because a woman is the perpetrator.
The movie is full of faux-feminist capitalist platitudes such as this, and it’s unclear how viewers are supposed to receive them. The Baroness is abusive and sociopathic, but she believes gender-based oppression is real. Cruella follows in the Baroness’s footsteps to become similarly egotistical and murderous, but she had a hard childhood and has a gay friend, Artie (John McCrea). Are we supposed to clap? Despite these missteps, the New York Times declares that “If you set aside the dognapping and puppy-skinning plots (which are, admittedly, hard to overlook), Disney’s version of Cruella has always been a bit of a feminist fantasy.” In addition to the fact that you can’t brush off animal abuse (Cruella’s entire schtick), bad behavior doesn’t become feminist simply because a woman is the perpetrator. Like The Queen’s Gambit, Cruella also falls into the white feminist trap of using characters of color to facilitate a white woman’s journey without attempting to develop their interiority. At one point, Cruella storms into Anita’s office and tells her old friend, who in this version of the story is Black, “I want you to help me tell them who I am.” Presumably this is meant to be a girl-power moment, in which two women team up for a greater cause, but it’s really just about Cruella’s self-aggrandizement.
The Disney villain cinematic universe seems to characterize feminism thusly: When men are abusive, it’s the patriarchy; when (white) women are abusive, it’s empowerment. But no matter how you slice it, girlbosses are just…bosses. It’s fine to allow some antagonists, including women, to be irredeemable. There are plenty of interesting stories about legitimately misunderstood women to explore on the big screen—Lilith and Medusa come to mind. And, heck, as entertainment writer Abby Monteil tweeted, there are even other compelling women side characters in the same franchise who could use origin stories. Ultimately, Cruella is a Disney movie: It’s amusing and light—not necessarily trying to present a cohesive worldview or do much more than make money. But this cinematic tradition of retroactively excusing these characters’ atrocious behavior—or, worse, peddling it as feminism—feels out of touch. If a woman is bad, let her be bad.