The making of a villain

From the very beginning, I realized I saw the world differently from everyone else

That didn’t sit well with some people

But I wasn’t for everyone

I guess they were all scared that I’d be…

A psycho

What makes a villain? Is it possible to divide the world cleanly on grounds of heroism and villainy? Where would each of us lie, and what does it take to embrace your side of the debate?

Luckily, this is not a real debate, but in Disney’s Cruella, we get to see the making of a villain. Someone many of us are familiar with, depending on the cartoons you watched growing up. If you ever had any contact with ‘101 Dalmatians’ as a child, then you know of Cruella de Vil, the evil genius always plotting to kidnap and separate the lovable black and white dogs.

But she wasn’t always Cruella. She was once Estella, a young up-and-coming fashion designer in London of the 1970s, a child of the punk revolution, who brought this to bear in her designs and was considered an outcast for that. She wasn’t just another young girl looking for a break; she was a crook, a good one at that, and it was only a matter of time before she met two like minds who would be critical in her story from now on. Together, the trio relies on their wits to survive on the streets of London. Our villain comes from the school of hard knocks, sometimes doing menial jobs to survive, mopping floors while getting stepped on without an apology. The society she wanted to step into treating her like she didn’t exist. Consistently treat any human, like they are invisible and you will get someone who runs roughshod over societal norms.

Consistently treat Estella like vermin, and you get Cruella.

But the story doesn’t just go like that. Many street hustlers never get their day in the sun, they grow old and are forgotten. Our heroine (can I call her the heroine since it’s her story?) is lucky enough to have a chance encounter with Baroness von Hellman. Baroness Hellman is herself an established fashion legend, who is nearly impossible to satisfy, and what you would say, a precursor to what Estella would become. The meat of the movie will be how their relationship sets Estella down the path that makes her the villain some of us are already familiar with.

Oh, and lest I forget, Baroness Hellman has three dalmatians, and they dislike Estella. In the movie (based on the trailer), they chase her and she kidnaps them, thus laying the foundations for the dynamic we are most familiar with.

Grand entrances and roars

Cruella on stage
Cruella on stage

But I was ready to make a statement

How does the saying go?

I am woman:

Hear me roar,

Walking into a ballroom wearing what seems like a white plain raincoat, setting fire on herself with a matchstick, to reveal what lies within, our villain, wearing a black chic gown and a wig colored in two halves of black and white, a small eye mask. This is the moment Estella becomes Cruella. There in front of Baroness Hellman and all her high society friends. In the presence of all those who rejected her once, she sets fire to the deferential, eager to please Estella, finally becoming what she always was. Letting out her roar. Now you will hear me, now you will see me, and I will give you all a taste of your medicine.

She was always Cruella. Like the classic Peak milk byline, it was always in her. But aren’t we all a farce? Don’t we always try to present our better side to the world to be accepted and take part? For those who cannot fit in, what’s the point of putting up the facade? Why should a lioness purr hoping to be petted?

I am woman; hear me roar

I Am Woman

The movie, ‘Cruella’ is faithful to the London in the 1970s in more than just fashion style and culture. The catchphrase of our heroine, ‘I am woman, hear me roar’, is gotten from the song titled ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy, released in 1972. So, it’s safe to say that it would have been a popular catchphrase, especially amongst women.

I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an’ pretend

’Cause I’ve heard it all before

And I’ve been down there on the floor

No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Can you see it? Can you feel the defiance? The refusal to play the good girl anymore, kowtowing to others. Estella becomes Cruella when she takes the red pill. There is no turning back now, no idealism, no fantasies. As she rides the bike on the highway on an early London morning with her makeup slightly smeared, those are probably tears for her former follies. Now she is cold, heartless, and brutal. She is Cruella de Vil, complete with a car that has the license plate, ‘DEVIL’.

I am Cruella
I am Cruella

The Music

Describing Craig Gillespie, the director of Cruella, Emma Thompson (who plays Baroness Hellman) says ‘he uses music to just pull you into the screen’, and this is a very sound move. The 1970s marked a renaissance in musical tastes. Music was getting faster with punk and rock influence coming in. Rap music wouldn’t arrive till around the 90s, but the 70s laid the foundation for metal and acoustic guitars in our lyrics. They packed the movie with soundtracks from musicians of the time like Nina Simone, Queen, The Clash, Black Sabbath, Ike & Tina Turner, The Animals, Supertramp, Doris Day, David Bowie, Nancy Sinatra just to name a few. There are 48 songs in the range according to Craig.

Emma Thompson’s first scene in the movie as she steps out of her car, and into a building is to the soundtrack, ‘Sound of the doors’. In her words, she has never arrived in a movie to a cooler soundtrack. And Emma Thompson, for those familiar with her acting, she sabi grand entrance die.

Emma Stone (our dear Cruella), arrives on the scene to Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. The lyrics of that song and the scene where it is played are so contrasting that it’s like a premonition of what Estella at the time will eventually become.

These boots are made for walkin

And that’s just what they’ll do

One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you

In the scene where this song is played, Estella is coming out of the elevator into what looks like a department store, poorly lit, dressed in a faded maid’s gown, a bottle of alcohol in one hand, and a bag of trash in the other. Nothing is intimidating, or boot-crushing about this plain Jane. This is just another tired working-class woman who just needs a drink and a hard bed before another grueling day.

For the scene where she rides on a bike, a song was specially written titled, ‘Call me Cruella’. The music was supervised by Susan Jacobs, a music supervisor with over 2 decades of experience, with movies like Silver Linings, Playbook, American Hustle, and Little Miss Sunshine, where she also supervised the music.[i]

Source Material

The movie is based on the book, ‘The One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, by Dodie Smith (1896–1990). Published in 1956, the book chronicles the kidnapping of a family of dalmatian puppies, and follows the parents, Pongo and Missis, as they search for their puppies. The sequel to the book, The Starlight Barking, was published in 1967. In the book, the dogs with the Dearly family, and guess what, Cruella de Vil is an old schoolmate of Mrs. Dearly. In the book, Cruella is a wealthy woman who is obsessed with fur clothing to where she marries a furrier and forces him to keep his fur collection at home so she can wear them as she pleases.

We’ll have to watch the movie to see if this taste for fur will be retained, but I suspect it won’t, considering how animal rights activists might take it. In the book though, Cruella has a weird taste for dalmatian-skin coats and offers to buy the puppies from the Dearlys, who reject her offer twice. She then kidnaps the puppies. It turns out she has been stealing dalmatian puppies for a long time now, and in her mansion at Hell Hall, she has 97 in total. She instructed the Baddun Brothers to skin the dogs in time to make her dalmatian coats, but they aren’t able to do it before the Pongo and Missis find them and lead the successful rescue.

If you’re wondering where the number 101 dalmatians come from, it’s like this. Cruella has kidnapped 82 puppies, Pongo and Missis have 15 puppies which Cruella later steals, making 97. Count Pongo and Missis, we have 99. There’s Perdita, another dalmatian whose puppies are part of the original 82, we have 100. There’s finally Prince, the partner to Perdita, who shows up at the end of the book, making 101. Voila — 101 Dalmatians.

The movie comes out on the 28th of May, but since it’s focused on Cruella’s backstory, we’re not likely to see most of this play out. In the movie, 3 dalmatians are owned by the Baroness, so we can already expect some variation, which is good. We shouldn’t be able to just guess how everything will play out, where’s the fun in that? I think the Baddun Brothers will show up as the two miscreants that help her survive in the streets.

Giving Villains the Credit they deserve

This is not the first time there has been a movie based on the book, 101 Dalmatians, but this is the first time we’re getting a movie focused on the villain. This new trend in Hollywood of exploring the backstories of popular villains has proven to be successful and quite refreshing. Not every time, the good guy beats a bad guy, we know that too well. I think the success of the movie ‘Joker’ and ‘Venom’ has emboldened studios to explore stories of villains and antiheroes. There’s something relatable about watching the development of someone who we already know has a warped story. We know you’ll turn bad but how you get there, I think there’s something we can all relate to in that.

The success of the ‘Joker’ movie was in part because it was his story, from his perspective, not from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, like any typical Batman movie. There were references to the Wayne family, but the writers made sure not to make him a secondary character in his story. If the trailers are anything to go by, then the writers of ‘Cruella’, nailed this.

Oh, and the writers are:

- Alice Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory, We Bought a Zoo, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend),

- Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey, Saving Mr. Banks, Terra Nova), and

- Steve Zissis (Baghead, Cyrus, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, Togetherness, Her)

Previous Adaptations

The first adaptation of the source material was an animated film released in 1961 with the title, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’. It became the 10th highest-grossing film in 1961 and was released 4 times after, in 1969, 1979, 1985, and 1991. The live-action version came in 1996 under the title, ‘101 Dalmatians’. Glenn Close played the character of Cruella in the movie. It had a budget of $75 million (in today’s money roughly, $127 million) and grossed $320.7 million ($540 million approximately, in today’s money) at the box office, making it the sixth highest-grossing film of 1996. The sequel to this movie, titled, ‘102 Dalmatians’ was released on November 22, 2000.

Glenn Close 101 dalmatians Disney
Glenn Close 101 dalmatians Disney

The budget for ‘Cruella’ is $200 million. Considering the new assets Disney has developed since then, such as Disney+, their dedicated streaming service where users can get premium access to the movie, crossover fans from their Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars properties, lovers of the 101 Dalmatians franchise, and the general audience, this movie is likely to hit the box office charts.

I won’t speculate on whether there might be a planned sequel. More often than not, studios like to keep mum about sequels until they see the audience’s reaction. Captain America 4 wasn’t confirmed till after the last episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed till I have time to watch the movie for myself, and you should too.

Disney Cruella
Disney Cruella

[i] ‘Sue Jacobs, Owner, Music Supervisor, SuperVision’, Sync Summit, https://syncsummit.com/suej

Analyst/Emerging Tech Lead, Tech Hive Advisory | AI Ethics & Governance Researcher