Disney's 'Cruella' rebrands a murderous supervillain as a rebellious wild child


By Tabitha Shannon, Second Year, English

Last month, Disney released the trailer for its upcoming live-action prequel Cruella. Like the two Maleficent (2014, 2019) films before it, the story is expected to bring refreshing nuances and depth to another classic Disney villain, illuminating Cruella de Vil’s transition from an angsty, misunderstood fashion designer, to one of the most stylish, iconic female antagonists of all time.

Set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, we see Emma Stone’s modernised take on the timeless character, amongst other welcomed faces, including Emma Thompson, Mark Strong and Dev Patel. Whilst the trailer drew an impressive 71 million views in its first 24 hours of release, it seems fans already have seriously mixed feelings towards the film’s premise.

Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil | Courtesy of IMDb

On the surface, we can see Disney’s progressive spin on the originally animated scary and unlikeable Cruella into a symbol of female empowerment. The trailer exaggerates her bold self-determination with a sexy soundtrack and trendy costume design, echoing other famous ‘girl bosses’ such as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. In fact, Aline Brosh McKenna, the scriptwriter for The Devil Wears Prada, actually wrote early drafts of the script for Cruella, and we can see clear similarities between these two authoritative, fashionable women.

Does Disney truly expect us to empathise with their rebranding of a murderous and mentally ill supervillain as a cool and rebellious wild child?

As a result, for the duration of the trailer – of which there is definitively no mention of unethical fur coats or the skinning of dalmatian puppies – we are entirely distracted from the realities of the murderous character that we have loved to hate since 1961. From the trailer alone, it seems we are even encouraged to sympathise with the villain.

However, there is serious concern that this attempt to rebrand Cruella into a tragically misunderstood ‘girl boss’ will have disastrous consequences. Unlike Maleficent, who’s humanisation of its antagonist at worst excuses the vengeful acts of a scorned woman, Cruella’s intention to rewrite the character’s history takes it up a notch through essentially victimising a psychotic animal killer.

Emma Stone, Joel Fry, and Paul Walter Hauser in Cruella (2021) | Courtesy of IMDb

Fans were quick to spot Disney’s artificial and awkward attempt of redirecting Cruella de Vil into a modern feminist icon – with one of the first YouTube comments under the film’s official trailer reading ‘she’s not women-empowering, she’s a puppy killer.’ What more is there to say? Cruella de Vil should not be an inspirational symbol of female independence. Moreover, Emma Stone’s self-indulgent, hackneyed voiceover throughout the trailer, which attempts to paint her as a mistreated outsider - ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ - merely comes across as clumsy and derivative.

Unfortunately, the trailer also seems to advertise yet another film that will problematically and unsuccessfully try to delve into female mental illness. From the original Disney animation, we learn that behind her glamour, Cruella de Vil is a murderous, narcissistic psychopath; she is a woman who is perfectly willing to illegally abduct, murder and skin 99 puppies to create her own spotted fur coat. In fact, within Disney’s previous live-action sequel of the story, 102 Dalmatians (2000), we see Glenn Close’s Cruella incarcerated within a psychiatric ward. Does Disney truly expect us to empathise with their rebranding of a murderous and mentally ill supervillain as a cool and rebellious wild child?

Cruella’s conflation of female sexuality, anarchy and mental illness draws very obvious parallels to Harley Quinn from DC’s Suicide Squad (2016). Fans associated the two female characters together so quickly that the release of the Cruella trailer alone caused ‘Harley Quinn’ to trend on twitter once again. In addition to Cruella’s Quinn-esque quirky wardrobe and ghostly makeup, both characters seem to revel in their involvement in the criminal underworld.

However, whilst Harley Quinn was similarly violent, selfish and out of control, she differs from Cruella in her underlying morals; Harley Quinn demonstrates a seemingly good character and virtue underneath her quirky exterior, unlike Cruella, who is undeniable immoral. Nonetheless, this parallel is still cause for concern, particularly due to the overwhelming impact Harley Quinn’s aesthetic had on young, impressionable girls within the sphere of popular culture. If this film will similarly spark hundreds of girls across the country to dye their hair black and white, will we see them skinning puppies for their fur-coated Halloween costumes too?

Emma Stone in Cruella (2021) | Courtesy of IMDb

In fact, following the trailer’s release last month, PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange made an official statement regarding her belief in Cruella’s unintentional future impact on an increase of animal abuse. She stated that ‘no character spotlights the cruelty of wearing fur or skinning dogs better than Cruella, but PETA’s praise will be on paws until Disney takes steps to stop a repeat of 1996, when animal shelters were flooded with Dalmatians reportedly bought and discarded by 101 Dalmatians fans who weren’t prepared for the puppies to grow up.’

If this film sparks hundreds of girls across the country to dye their hair black and white, will we see them skinning puppies for their fur-coated Halloween costumes too?

Upon further inspection however, Cruella might not be Disney’s answer to Harley Quinn at all. Instead, we can see Emma Stone’s adaptation of the antagonist as perhaps more akin to Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of the titular character in Joker (2019).

Both films have a very dark, sinister aesthetic to them, as well as both concentrating on the moody cinematography of the late 20th Century. The respective trailers of the two films are also greatly similar with their tones and transitions: Joker’s trailer saw Joaquin Phoenix narrating over a violent, anarchic montage, discussing how evil people are blameless and the product of a corrupted society. Stone’s Cruella uses her voiceover in the exact same manner, stating how it can be brilliant to be so bad.  

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It is clear that both Cruella and Joker are anti-establishment films that serve to reflect the worst aspects of modern life. But, whilst Joker presents itself as a serious, psychological drama that documents a man’s descent into madness, the sexualised and darkly comedic tone of Cruella renders its moral message far more complicated.

As a result, the trailer of Cruella creates early cause for concern surrounding whether the film will be able to resist drawing a problematic line between the romanticisation of violence and sexuality with a corrupted portrayal of female mental illness.

Featured: IMDb

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