Cruella, as a concept, is a movie begging to be memed. We’re all a little tired of origin stories by this point, especially when they’re being given to characters that nobody has ever wondered about the backstory of. Ratched, the story of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, is the latest example of this. Well, Cruella is the latest example, but before that, it was Ratched, and before that there were dozens more. At any rate, it’s a trend we’re tired of – even Cruella’s trailer seemed to be fishing for comparisons to Joker, the origin story of… well, take a guess.
‘They turned Cruella into the Joker’ is such a nonsense soup of words that it’s difficult to take the film seriously, especially when you consider how irredeemably evil Cruella de Vil actually is. Her crimes might seem quite small fry in the midst of other villains from popular culture, but her whole deal is that she wants to kill and skin 101 puppy dogs – that can’t be reasoned away. There’s no struggle to relate to there, nothing to endear us to Cruella. She’s very fun to hate, and that’s part of her charm. Inverting that for an origin story seems baffling.
Still, something about the film captured my interest. While a Cruella origin story seems unnecessary, it’s set against a backdrop of a 20th Century fashion house rivalry in London, elevates Cruella’s eccentric aesthetic, and features the talents of Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, and the criminally underrated Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. Yes, it’s a bit of an unnecessary movie, but aren’t movies all unnecessary? Isn’t that what makes fiction interesting? I don’t want to get all mystical about humankind’s desire to create art and the nature of self expression over a Cruella de Vil origin story bankrolled by Disney, but ‘Who asked for this?’ is always the stupidest protest over a movie or TV show or game you don’t think looks interesting.
Mild spoilers follow for Cruella.
Despite – or perhaps a little bit because of – the weirdness of ‘What if Cruella de Vil but Joker’, I had bought in. Then I heard that Cruella’s mother gets killed by dalmatians in the opening scene. But hey, this movie is meme-central, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, right? Then I watched it – Cruella’s mother does not get killed by dalmatians in the opening scene, but she does in about the sixth or seventh one, around five minutes into the film.
At that point, my mixed hopes for Cruella plummeted. It seemed like they were going to use her mother’s murder at the hands – or paws – of three dogs as the catalyst for Cruella’s hatred for dalmatians and her desire to skin them. Thankfully, they do not. While a plot MacGuffin requires her to kidnap dalmatians at one point, she does not blame them personally for her mother’s demise. She blames herself, first and foremost, and then when she discovers who blew the dog whistle, she blames the blower. Cruella’s black and white colour scheme comes not from any connection to the dalmatians at all, but from her half white, half black hair – a condition she was born with.
No official marketing for the movie ever said ‘Cruella but Joker’, though the trailer clearly courted it. That might have meant the movie got mercilessly memed upon, but it also piqued a lot of folks’ interests – I know, because it piqued mine. In the end, that’s not really what Cruella is. She’s a bit mean and loses her way throughout the film, but she’s never evil. This isn’t the origin story of a monster. It’s Birds of Prey meets Oliver Twist by way of The Devil Wears Prada with a London punk soundtrack. It leans into its own campy vibes and wants, more than anything else, to be a spectacle. The stories are true, the Cruella Joker movie does start with Cruella’s mother being killed by dalmatians – but it’s not like you think.
People have gone into Cruella expecting it to be the tale of the birth of a villain. That’s what Joker is, after all. In his own movie, Arthur Fleck kills several people, many times with zero cause or justification. He’s sympathetic, kind of, but there’s no doubt that he’s a bad guy. When Cruella starts with “Dalmatians killed my mother!” it seems like it’s setting up Cruella’s justification, and that’s very silly. Once you watch the whole thing though, you understand that the dalmatian mother-murder is setting up something completely different, and as daft as it is, it just about works.
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