Narrating Cruella: How Disney (Hopefully) Tells Her Story
The internet has spoken, and it’s divided over what it sees in Cruella, the newest Disney remake slated for arrival on May 25th. Set to premiere on Disney+, it tells the origin story of Cruella De Vil, the dastardly, unredeemable villain of the 101 Dalmatians franchise.
The synopsis sounds, well, off:
“In 1970s London, young fashion designer Estella de Vil becomes obsessed with dogs' skins, especially Dalmatians. Finding herself at the mercy of an uncaring employer, she reinvents herself as the vicious criminal known as ‘Cruella.’” (Taken from Wikipedia)
From the way the trailer is fashioned, it reminds audiences of other origin stories: Joker and Maleficent, two films that gave sympathy to the titular evil characters.
My big problem with it is the possibility of a redemption arc for Cruella De Vil, the same way they gave one to Maleficent. Additionally, the mention of “I am woman, hear me roar” in the trailer also leads me to believe that they want her to be a feminist icon, which can be a terrible idea.
Remember, this is Cruella we’re talking about here.
If she doesn't scare you…
Author Dodie Smith created Cruella De Vil for her novel, The One Hundred and One Dalmations (the original book's name). The story is slightly different than the famous Disney films, but it still has one very important element; the villain. Cruella is described as a spoiled London heiress who went to school with the female protagonist but was expelled for drinking ink. Additionally, she is so fixated on fur clothing that she married a furrier and forced him to keep his fur collection at home so she can wear them whenever she liked.
When she sees the puppies, the same obsessive glare runs across her eyes:
“Lovely lovely dogs. You’d go so well with my car, and my black-and-white hair.”
— Cruella de Vil, on the family’s Dalmatian puppies.
The familiar song-and-dance occurs. Cruella tries to capture the puppies, parents included, but they all escape and live happily ever after.
The Disney versions decided to change her backstory towards involvement in the fashion industry, a reasonable character modernization.
The origin story they’re telling will delve even further into the fashion aspect and display more of the feminine independence the original edit made to her character. This is where the origin element could be tricky, especially with the problems mentioned above.
Here’s the main point; she’s meant to be a symbol of greed and vanity. Giving her any redeeming qualities that typical origin stories give might tarnish her legacy.
Telling a villain’s origin story
Origin stories are fun to tell, mainly because it gives the writer a chance to make something new out of an old tale. They have the chance to reward fans with little hints at their character or build on obscure ideas from their past.
Usually, a hero’s beginning takes after the hero’s journey; if we already knew of the protagonist’s task, now all we need is to see how they started. It’s one thing to chart a course for a hero, but what about a villain?
The three ways
There are three ways to tell an origin story, but especially for the villain: poisoning the well, releasing the hound, or envenomating the snake.
- Poisoning the well is when you take a well-meaning person and taint them with evil. For example, someone may want to make the world a better place, then become greedy or are forced to become something different and, in turn, sacrifice that desire for change (see Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight, The Onceler from The Lorax, or Anakin Skywalker from The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy).
- Releasing the hound is all about kicking a dog until it bites back. This is when a person is constantly treated poorly by the world at large or by a particular person, and they rebel, turning into a far worse force than any of their predecessors (see Arthur Fleck from Joker or William Foster from Falling Down).
- The one I believe best suits a Cruella De Vil origin story is the third direction. Envenomating the snake is when a character skips over being any good and is already a bad influence. Now, they face a more malevolent threat and must become even worse to surpass their antagonists. They are neither forced to do anything evil nor retaliating to bad circumstances; they’re bad and want to become dastardly despicable.
She’s shown as being a terrifying force, enough to scare one of the protagonists at school. So, she was already bad from the start. Unfortunately, her future isn’t much better- she wants to wear the fur of dead puppies on a coat. The fun will be showing how terrible she was to justify her escalation into the Cruella we all know and fear.
Watching her should feel like watching The Office (US), but it’s to see how Michael Scott treats everyone horribly instead of awkwardly. We shouldn’t root for someone who will want to wear dead puppies in the future. Rather it should feel like seeing a car crash in slow motion, with a morbid curiosity.
The world she inhabits isn’t ready for her. So to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of fashion, she has to become a cruel person. Luckily, she has a name picked out for the occasion, and it matches her black and white hair.
Hopefully, this is what we’ll see when Cruella releases on Disney+ this May.
Remember, she’s like a spider going for the kill, that Cruella, Cruella de Vil.