Life is never just black and white. Hair, though, is another matter.
Estella was born with her shock of locks—jet black on one side, snow white on the other. It’s an unusual look, but fitting. After all, it does seem to reflect a certain sharp contrast in her mental makeup.
Her mother knew her daughter was different, and she did her best to shape her into a more socially acceptable form. “Be polite, and good, and friendly!” Mom encouraged her. And Estella tried. She really did.
But the world itself is not always polite and good and friendly. And when it pushed her, Estella would push back—unleashing a near split personality that the girl herself called Cruella. In a boarding school full of bullies, Cruella was happy to bully right back.
“Being a genius is one thing,” Cruella would later recount. “Raising a genius has its challenges.” Estella/Cruella and the school’s headmaster got to know each other quite well in the short time they were together. Estella’s mom eventually could see the school just wasn’t the place for her headstrong daughter (a split-second before Estella was expelled), and the two left for London and a fresh start.
But Mom was not a wealthy woman. So on the way, she made a stop to ask—beg, really—for a little money from an old “friend.” Just enough to help herself and Estella find their footing again. They arrived at the palatial Hellman Hall during a costume party: Mum squashed a hat on Estella’s distinctive locks, gave her a family heirloom (a necklace) for safekeeping and told her to stay put in the car.
Estella did not listen.
She and her pup, Buddy, made their escape from the auto moments later and quickly made, shall we say, quite an impression on the ball’s glittering masses. In the ensuing hubbub, Estella lost the necklace and had to run for her life as a trio of vicious Dalmatians chased her out of the mansion. In desperation, she and Buddy dove into a hedge and waited for the dogs’ fangs to clamp down on her.
But instead, the dogs leaped over the hedge and galloped straight for two women standing on the bannistered edge of a cliff; a strange, regal-looking woman and Estelle’s mother.
The dogs did not stop. They lept instead, barreling into the mother, who fell to the rocks below. Estella was now an orphan.
“Don’t worry,” narrator Cruella soon tells her audience. “We’re just getting started. There’s lots more bad things coming.”
And she’s right.
When your protagonist is one of the most notorious villains in all of Disneydom, you’re not necessarily going to have a lot to work with in this section. Indeed, the movie’s most honorable character is the same one who takes that lethal tumble off the cliff early on: Estella’s mom. She’s very kind and devoted to her daughter, despite the many challenges that Estella faces because of her unusual hair. In fact, the softest spot in Estella’s heart remains reserved for her.
But Estella finds another family of sorts in the London streets. Jasper and Horace, two pint-sized grifters, take strange little Estella in after she’s been orphaned, and the three spend many years together, thick as thieves (literally). When Estella’s Cruella personality takes over, she has little room for anyone but herself and her wicked schemes. But when she’s fully Estella, she harbors deep affection for her partners in crime, and they return the favor. One even gives her a special birthday present one year—an entry-level position at London’s poshest department store. That gig sets the rest of the movie in motion.
You find a bit of an unintentional pro-life message in the film as it wears on.
All the spiritual references in Cruella are just plain dark—but not much different in tone or character than what was present in the original 1961 One Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Hellman Hall eventually undergoes a name change, becoming Hell Hall. Cruella takes the last name of “de Vil,” and her car is branded with those same five letters—all capitalized.
Much of Cruella takes place in the mid-1970s, just as punk and glam rock were taking off in London. David Bowie was at the forefront of the latter, embodied by his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona.
All of that serves as a backdrop for Artie, a fashion designer whom Estella meets early on and becomes her close confidant. With his effeminate nature and gender-bending clothes, Artie tells Estella that to say that one is “normal is the cruelest insult of all, and I never get that.”
Some of the fashions on display here feature exposed shoulders and, more rarely, a bit of cleavage. A male character disguises himself in drag.
Characters fall from some pretty dizzying heights, sometimes with fatal results. A building is set on fire, threatening the life of a character tied up inside. As a child, Estella gets into lots of fights with schoolmates (which we see in a montage). Several women are tackled by security guards. There are indications that someone may be something of a psychopathic killer. Cruella thwacks plenty of people with a cane, and she pricks someone with a needle.
Dogs, particularly Buddy, suffer some bumps and bruises here. Some are quite menacing, baring snarling fangs at times. When Cruella shows up in a spotted coat, there’s some question (and frank accusation) as to whether she killed Dalmatians in order to make it. A dump truck crashes into a police station. Cruella is a terrible driver, and her car nicks plenty of other vehicles as she careens down the streets. People are punched and pushed. We see a bit of blood on someone’s arm. A guy gets thwacked in the eye with a champagne cork. A tower of champagne glasses collapses spectacularly.
We hear the British profanity “bloody” once or twice (not to mention in a song in the background). There’s also a use of the word “h—” (in addition to the written references I mention in spiritual content), two misuses of God’s name and some slightly vulgar exclamations.
We see plenty of alcohol here, and often its use takes on a glamorous sheen.
Estella works for a time as a janitor in a posh department store, hoping to get a shot at some design work. Her ambitions are constantly squelched until, one evening while cleaning her boss’s office, she breaks into his liquor cabinet and drinks heavily from a crystal decanter. Under the influence, she redesigns one of the store’s window displays and passes out there.
Champagne (including a tower of filled champagne glasses) is a constant presence in the film’s many parties. The Baroness and Estella drink a cocktail over lunch. Estella’s department-store boss daintily sniffs and sips what may be port.
Though the movie tries to excuse or laugh it off at times, Estella/Cruella has some problems. As a kid, she fights constantly (though her classmates were jerks). After she comes to London, she and her pals steal things almost daily (with the movie portraying all this wall-to-wall larceny as a bit of a lark). They break into buildings, pick pockets, mislead innocent people and—by Cruella’s own admission—make a pretty good living at it.
As an adult—embracing the age’s punk ethos—Cruella revels in anarchic stunts, many of which are illegal.
A Dalmatian swallows an important family heirloom, and characters spend quite a bit of time waiting for it to pass through the other end. In one scene, we see one of the dogs appear to squat, as if doing its business, and then a character wave a metal detector over the (off-camera) mess. Later, we hear that the object has been found a cleaned.
Spitballs fly and sometimes lodge on people’s faces. Garbage-inhabiting banana slices stick on someone’s cheek, to be blithely eaten by the cheek’s owner. Characters lie. We hear references regarding characters’ odors. Estella spends quite a bit of time cleaning toilets (retching at one point). The Baroness is as selfish as anyone can be and says at one point that “gratitude is for losers.”
Being bad has rarely looked so good. Therein lies this Disney reboot’s charm … and its problems.
Though it stays well within its PG-13 rating fence and doesn’t have that many overt content issues, Cruella is all style, little substance—all glam, no mass. Fitting it should revolve around the world of fashion, given that the film itself is sequin deep.
While it does pay lip service to caring for others, such efforts feel more like a window display.
Yes, the movie looks marvelous. It stars two famous Emmas—Stone and Thompson—and it’s really fun to watch. But inside, it feels a bit rotten, just like its central characters. And when the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” plays near the end, it seems like the movie is, in a way, asking us to offer the same—not just our tough-luck antihero Estella/Cruella, but for most of the bad decisions she made along the way.
Let’s get back to the two characters that dominated the introduction: Estella—the brilliant-but-extreme girl, and her loving, long-suffering mother. Mom does her best to rein in her daughter’s worst inclinations. Be friendly, Estella is told. Polite. Decent.
And isn’t this what parents are, in large part, supposed to do? Teach their children how to behave and get along with others? Without guidance, most kids would behave pretty horribly.
But even though both Estella and the movie stress how good Estella’s mother is, her efforts to curb Estella smack of not of healthy parenting but conformity, one of the worst sins in our individualistic age. Don’t you know? The movie seems to say (if you’ll bear with the cliché). You can’t stuff a square peg in a round hole.
Now, as a square peg myself, this is not a message I inherently recoil from. God made us all different, after all, to fulfill different parts of His overarching plan.
But there’s a difference between being different and being bad—like legally and ethically bad. And the movie, if it gets the distinction, doesn’t do a very good job of stressing it.
And there’s another, related problem to mention here, too—one predicated on the longstanding nature vs. nurture paradigm.
Cruella tells us that she was “born bad.” That may be true. And while her mom didn’t have Cruella’s full childhood to raise the girl, she had several years to make a dent in Estella’s character. But Cruella, as much as she loved her mom, flushed away whatever her mom tried to teach her. She couldn’t be the person her mother wanted her to be. The “badness” she was born with, her inherent nonconformity, was just too strong.
The movie seems to suggest that kids are gonna grow up to be who they’re born to be. And parents—no matter how hard they try—don’t have a lot of say otherwise. And maybe—instead of trying to teach their kids to be polite and friendly and kind—they should just let ‘em follow their instincts.
This would be an inherently discouraging message to many parents, especially foster or adoptive ones. And it’s a potentially damaging message, too. Because we gotta remember, Cruella turns out to be a villain.
God tells us that our differences make us special, but our sins make us flawed. We should embrace our uniqueness while shedding our sins, constantly molding ourselves (and allowing others to mold us) into people more closely aligned with God’s purpose.
Cruella tells us that our differences make us special, too—but so do our sins. Being bad might not be good, but it sure can be cool. And for many kids, good and cool are practically synonymous.
We’ve seen plenty of movies—including from Disney—that deconstruct villains and to turn them into something more pleasing to the eye and heart. Maleficent—perhaps Disney’s ultimate baddie—finds not just compassion, but redemption in her Angelina Jolie retrofits.
But Cruella takes a different tack. At one point, the story’s antihero says, “People do need a villain to believe in, so I’m happy to fit the bill.” Sympathy for Ms. DeVil? We feel it, and we should. But the movie asks us to take a step further and respect her, even admire her—not in spite of her sins but because of them. And that’s a problem, no matter how glamorous it looks on screen.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.