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Cruella (2021) By Craig Gillespie - Movie Review

Cruella (2021) By Craig Gillespie - Movie Review

Cruella (2021) Director: Craig Gillespie Writers: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara (screenplay by) Aline Brosh McKennaKelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (story by) Dodie Smith (based upon the novel "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" by) Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Emily Beecham, Mark Strong, Kayvan Novak, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Runtime: 134 min Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for some violence and thematic elements

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)

Delivered from the evils of fur coats and cigarettes

Estella/Cruella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland/Emma Stone) is an orphan girl with a split personality – one half kind, the other half cruel. While on the run she falls in with a pair of pick-pocketing Dickensian grifters, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner/Joel Fry) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald/Paul Walter Hauser), and eventually pursues her lifelong passion for fashion which leads her into a competition with the Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an established fashion mogul. Her entanglement with the Baroness leads to dramatic personal revelations.  

Perhaps the people working in Disney’s live-action film department should be described as “re-imagineers.” With its focus on Cruella de Vil, director Craig Gillespie’s film works to embellish and justify the chain-smoking, devilish fashionista character of Clyde Geronimi and Hamilton Luske’s 1961 Disney cartoon One Hundred and One Dalmatians. In Cruella the audience sees a three ingredient recipe of one-part sympathy for the Devil origin story, one-part derivative Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) meets David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Canal Street knock-off, and one-part character assassination/revision. Gillespie and his writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara have taken one of Disney’s least likeable villains and made her 95% likeable. Cruella is a clever well-made film which accomplishes what it sets out to do. But is what it sets out to do a good thing?

In 1996 Stephen Herek made a live-action version of the 1961 Disney cartoon 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil. She even reprised her role in Kevin Lima's 102 Dalmatians (2000). In these films Cruella was still a villain through and through bent on making fur coats out of Dalmatians. Contrary to the rather consistent previous portrayals of the character, in Gillespie’s film Estella/Cruella is an animal lover at heart and would never hurt a dog. She even has her own little dog, Buddy the Terrier, as do her partners in crime. Yes, there are Dalmatians, but they aren’t the lovable Dalmatians of yesteryear. Here they are owned by the Baroness and, as a trio of snarling guard dogs, played a part in Estella becoming an orphan. But don’t worry, the Dalmatians of Cruella get their happy ending too. These details all play into the conceit of the film: Estella/Cruella is misunderstood. If in the original Dodie Smith 1956 children's novel, Disney cartoons, and subsequent live-action Disney films Cruella was twisted, evil and only loved dogs for the coats she could make out of them, in this film she must actually love dogs and have ‘justifiable’ reasons for everything she seeks to accomplish.

Sabrina Maddeaux in her National Post review “Disney killed Cruella de Vil with political correctness” does an excellent job of detailing the extent to which Gillespie course-corrects this character. The clever ploy is to give her a good, kind, nice, and likeable side in Estella and a mischievous, cunning, and disagreeable side in Cruella then in the end have her embrace Cruella but maybe keep some part of Estella as her ‘heart of gold,’ by publicly allowing Estella to die so that Cruella de Vil can be her public persona. Cruella begins with a voice-over narration by Emma Stone in character which is revealed to be part of a eulogy over the faux funeral of Estella by her “good” friend Cruella. By the end of the film it is clear that the whole story is the story of Estella’s demise as told by Cruella. There is no body in the casket yet it is clear that Cruella doesn’t expect Estella to make future appearances in her life.     

There is a Latin theological term used for the tension between the good and the evil in a person: “Simul Iustus et Peccator.” It means simultaneously justified and sinner or in other words simultaneously saint and sinner. Christians will understand this as being on the one hand the imputed righteousness of Christ, who is the new Adam, given by God to an individual as a gift making them a saint in the eyes of God, while on the other hand the rebellious inherent wickedness passed down to all people because of the Old Adam’s fall into sin which embodies a narcissistic evil which is turned in on itself away from God. Christian viewers aware of this theological concept supported by Scripture, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” (Romans 7:19) will see “Simul Iustus et Peccator” in spades. Estella/Cruella becomes a kind of personification of this struggle and as Gillespie’s Cruella unfolds, her dominant character traits shift from the more saintly qualities held dear by Estella to the more sinful qualities increasingly seen in Cruella. Of course it won’t just be Christian viewers who desire the good side of the protagonist to win in the end and Gillespie knows this.

With Cruella, because it is in part an origin story, viewers familiar with previous versions also know that the good-natured Estella won’t be the winner in this struggle. Therefore the whole character has to be as likeable as possible so the audience will buy into her story and root for her to the end. It is clear that to accomplish this Disney believes Estella/Cruella needs to be ‘woke’ in her views of culture and still be just unhinged enough to remain somewhat recognizable as the original character. What Gillespie uses to justify her actions is her poverty and hardships: being orphaned at a young age and put upon for having bad ‘breeding.’ By the end however she has upended these challenges successfully, capitalized on all of the bad cards she was dealt in life, and manages to climb the ladder of success to the panicle of elitism with all the theft, vandalism, dog-napping, and deception ‘forgiven’ because of her initial class struggles and hard life experiences. As an aside her punk rock aesthetic is fabric deep. The character of Estella and especially Cruella, for all of Gillespie’s posturing, isn’t anti-establishment as much as she is increasingly disagreeable and self interested.     

A number of Disney characters have received the anti-hero makeover. Recently, Hayabusa the falcon from the Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook animated Mulan (1998) became the shape-shifting sorceress falcon Xianniang who was no longer a simple villainous side-kick of the invading Mongolian Hun Shan-Yu but a misunderstood woman held against her will and forced to do her master’s bidding in Niki Caro's live action adaptation Mulan (2020). Most notable would be Clyde Geronimi's devilish horned witch Maleficent in his animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959) morphed into Angelina Jolie’s maligned and marginalised Maleficent in Robert Stromberg's live action Maleficent (2014) and Joachim Rønning Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019).

Why monkey around with these characters? The answer is likely less motivated by creative concerns and more by economics. There is a business reason for Disney’s desire to re-imagine these back-catalogue villains. Along with Cruella de Vil, these characters are now the intellectual property of Disney and as such are heavily marketed in film, print, and merchandizing. Refashioning these characters into Disney ‘princesses’ who became victims of circumstance spiralling into villainy gives a new angle on the characters and opens up new merchandizing opportunities. Even the choice to have Cruella set aside her signature opera length cigarette holder is rooted in an economic concern. Disney “determined not to depict cigarette smoking in movies produced … after 2015 (2007 in the case of Disney-branded movies) and distributed under the Disney,” in an official policy. “Pixar, Marvel or Lucasfilm labels, that are rated G, PG or PG-13, [will not include smoking] except for scenes that: - depict a historical figure who may have smoked at the time of his or her life; or - portray cigarette smoking in an unfavorable light or emphasize the negative consequences of smoking.” And in the case of Cruella because they are trying hard not to portray her in an unfavorable light the cigarettes needed to go away. The economic element comes in the form of pressure from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which would like the MPAA to give an R rating to films with smoking. Currently, films with smoking are labelled as such by the MPAA and, depending on how the smoking is portrayed, it could impact the overall rating. This makes a live-action chain-smoking Cruella both a creative and economic risk best left untested. The same could be said for Gillespie’s lack of fur coat fashions for Cruella in his film. Emma Stone has said in interviews that not having Cruella’s iconic cigarettes made getting into character harder.        

Disney’s savvy marketing machine can also be seen in Gillespie’s approach to music in Cruella. Much like the music in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Gillespie chose to punctuate his film with music familiar to the Baby Boomer grandparents and Gen X parents of the children at whom the film is aimed thereby making it “fun for the whole family,” nostalgic, and comforting in that pop-culture reference sort of way. All of this is intended to hook the older viewers and soften their opinion of the film’s story. Careful viewers will also notice two uses of music intended to build the film’s sympathy-for-the-devil angle: first, the 1968 Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil" is used in the film’s final moments along with the less obvious use of Jimmy Durante's 1965 recording of the song “Smile” which was recently used to great effect in Phillips’ Joker (2019). In both the R-rated Joker and the PG/PG-13- rated Cruella the melancholic yet hopeful and encouraging “Smile” is juxtaposed against the central character’s decent into infamy.  

Christian parents would be well served watch Cruella before deciding whether to allow their kids to see it. The film has no nudity, sex, brutal violence, or crude language but it does have a rather dark aesthetic weaving in proto-Goth and Punk fashion and there is a Ziggy Stardust-esque vintage clothing shop owner and tailor (John McCrea) written into the movie to appeal to the LGBTQ+ viewer. Since the plot revolves around the fashion industry these last points are hardly unexpected but do check certain boxes for Disney. The primary concern for families is the glamorization of evil and the continual justification of evil actions imbedded in a character the script works hard to make likeable. If a family chooses to watch the film a good plan would be to review the 10 Commandments in the Small Catechism before and after viewing to provide an opportunity for a family discussion about the central character and the general plot.

Overall, the film downplays the dangers of evil actions which may be harder to see during a casual viewing experience because Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, and Paul Walter Hauser are such excellent actors and the genuine humour and high quality production contribute to the likability of the film. Just as beauty doesn’t equal goodness, fun and likability don’t equal goodness either. The justification promoted by the World rooted in critical theory, social justice, and ideological ideas about class are not truly effective in the rehabilitation of a character at least not by Christian standards. By Christian standards evil needs to be sublimated and subdued not embraced, excused, or presented as justifiable. Christians are not the primary audience of Cruella however every audience member will have the opportunity to think about how the strategies and approaches used by Disney in making this film interact, reflect, or disagree with their own view on life regardless of how cleverly well-made, entertaining, and likeable Gillespie’s film is.

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran; Reporter; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index

This review also available at The Canadian Lutheran online.