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Disney Goes Punk for Cruella de Vil’s Origin Story

‘I, Tonya’ director Craig Gillespie is now in talks to helm the ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ prequel starring Emma Stone.
One Hundred And One Dalmatians Cruella De Vil
Walt Disney Productions
By  · Published on December 5th, 2018

Disney’s many attempts to dominate the tentpole movie space makes its inexorable nostalgia bait inescapable. There is never a shortage of announcements surrounding various retellings of their own classic stories. Yet, while the world may be most well-versed in the current boom of live-action redos that effectively began with Tim Burton’s commercially successful Alice in Wonderland, the Mouse House had actually already been tapping into its wealth of traditional IP 20 years ago.

Disney found some success recreating The Jungle Book and One Hundred and One Dalmatians in live-action form back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Just as the former recently found renewed life thanks to Jon Favreau’s detailed approach to his live-action and CGI hybrid remake, the studio is mining the latter for yet another do-over.

Deadline reports that Disney’s Cruella de Vil origin story could be gaining momentum with a new director. Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya fame is in early negotiations to helm the project, which is simply titled Cruella.

Emma Stone is set to star as the titular character, having been attached to headline the movie since 2016. At the time, Broadway mainstay and Mozart in the Jungle co-creator Alex Timbers was primed to fill the director’s chair. However, as Deadline states, Disney is apparently moving so quickly towards a 2019 shoot date for Cruella that Timbers — who is currently swamped with two huge stage productions — has to be replaced.

Notably, alongside this shift in key personnel, thanks to The Hollywood Reporter, we have a better idea of where Cruella could be heading narrative-wise. Evidently, the character will get some kind of punk-inspired past dating back to the 1980s. This throwback time period is where her origin story will be set. I don’t think anyone was expecting that, but honestly, what could we have expected from a character like Cruella? She has a distinct reputation of being one of the most iconic and unnerving villains despite pretty much being a static entity.

Cruella, per her own name, is oftentimes the undoubted personification of true evil. She originally appears in Dodie Smith’s children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians as a London heiress with a fixation on fur clothing and an equally disturbing penchant for animal cruelty outside her fashion-related interests. Compared to her previous movie counterparts, Cruella is much darker in the novel, with a domineering nature over everything in her life, including a passive husband and their cat.

In contrast, Cruella’s Disneyfied equivalent translates her into someone more easily charismatic, if undeniably sinister. In animated form, Cruella operates with the sole goal of turning a ton of puppies into a fur coat. In spite of her awful intentions, she is a skulking, over-the-top woman with an unmistakably wired husky drawl (courtesy of voice actress Betty Lou Gerson). Furthermore, she is a ridiculous driver and has her own upbeat theme song. This makes her oddly entertaining, though her agenda is too corrupt to ignore.

That sheer camp factor of Cruella’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians persona is further intensified in the 1996 live-action adaptation, 101 Dalmatians. Played to perfection by Glenn Close, this Cruella continues the tradition of being absurd but uncannily intimidating, too; arguably, even more so. Aside from her classic puffy silhouette of black and white with pops of blood-red, Cruella also dons a necklace made of teeth and actual claw-like gloves.

Close’s performance lives up to this menacing and comedic image with enough maniacal laughter and magnetic presence to anchor the movie and still sell its slapstick humor. The 2000 sequel 102 Dalmatians subsequently gives Cruella more screentime to develop as a potentially reformed criminal. But of course, she slips back into her canine-hunting comforts soon enough.

These are just a few interpretations of Cruella, who has turned up in more loosely related properties like ABC’s Once Upon a Time and the Disney Channel Original Movie Descendants. If anything, this in and of itself showcases her malleability and salience as an ultimate villain. Everything from Cruella’s memorable features to the performances that solidified her in our collective consciousness leaves just enough mystery for so many spinoff stories to spawn.

That said, I’m not entirely sure how Cruella’s specific hatred towards animals would manifest during her prequel when all that we know of her past merely seems to align with a more generalized view of a counterculture. As a dog lover myself, I’m not necessarily looking to sympathize with her through the same revisionist techniques used to humanize Maleficent in her eponymous retelling, either.

Nevertheless, Maleficent does prove to be a fascinating starting point for Cruella‘s real potential, because it is considerably unpredictable in reference to its original work. It feels like a fresher, more creative take compared to a more faithful remake as it imbues its female characters with agency in surprising ways.

It’s worth noting that Maleficent’s endeavors to discuss trauma and introduce shades of conflict into a simple story don’t always align for the perfect movie experience. Regardless, with its ambitious desire to introduce depth into a well-worn fairytale, the film bucks storytelling expectations and effectively re-envisions a classic. I’m actually curious to see where the Maleficent sequel takes its eponymous character, which is not something I would’ve thought to get out of a film about one of the slyest Disney villains.

The studio keeps focusing on bringing back all manner of stories that make us reminisce on our childhoods fondly. But once in a while, when they’re about villains — especially one as despicable and recognizable as Cruella — these films require more creativity to get right. That challenge is precisely what injects Cruella with so much possibility.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)