I dreaded watching Cruella, Disney’s new retooling of the 101 Dalmations villain’s backstory, because I knew at work today, I’d be expected to have a “take.” And before I even reluctantly paid my $37 bucks for a month of Disney+ access, along with some sort of “Premium” viewing privilege that allowed me to view the film, I knew what I was probably going to say: Our culture will do anything to excuse a rich white woman’s villainy, something about girlbosses and capitalism, et cetera, et cetera. I’ve said it all before, and on Friday, similar takes on the film had already begun rolling in while Twitter laughed at the film’s ridiculous inciting incident: A pack of vicious dalmatians killed Cruella’s mother, setting her on a collision course with her own villainy.
And guess what? The film doesn’t get less ridiculous after that. It’s completely silly—Main character Estella (nicknamed Cruella by her late mother for her tendency to give in to meaner impulses) is a societal misfit, fistfighting bullies until she’s ejected from boarding school, embarking on a life of grifting with two other urchins named Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) and a couple of very adorable criminal dogs. When Estella (played by Emma Stone) takes a dream job at a prominent London fashion house, the cruelty of her boss, The Baroness (Emma Thompson clearly loving her chance to have her own Devil Wears Prada moment) inflames her dormant cruelty, locking the two in a hijinks-saddled battle to both deliver their lines in the most offhandedly arrogant way possible, outdo each other on the runway, and then eventually do murder to a soundtrack of commercially successful classic rock songs pared down to a faux-arty Starbucks CD aesthetic with a lot of stunning shots of really, really good clothes. Cruella is nothing, really, and that feels so welcome after the past year of serious, deadly news with hourly headlines giving every reason in the world to shake with fear and rage. It’s an airplane movie just in time for us to maybe even go on an airplane again. The film is far too long, at two-plus hours, but there are much worse ways to spend around 140 minutes, such as reading internet indignation that a massively budgeted Disney blockbuster on an exorbitantly priced streaming app didn’t perform its socialist feminism well enough to be exalted as a masterpiece in a college classroom.
In fact, the “everyone sucks here” ethos of Cruella makes the film view very much like another film about power dynamics between women willing to throw their closest competition off a cliff to move one rung higher on an ultimately pointless ladder, The Favourite. This theme makes sense, as one of the film’s credited writers is Tony McNamara, who wrote both The Favourite and Hulu’s The Great, two very funny works about rich people’s frivolous cruelty, among other things.
“You can’t care about anyone else,” The Baroness tells Estella in one scene, incredibly reminiscent of McNamara’s other works. “Everyone else is an obstacle. You care what an obstacle wants or feels, you’re dead. If I had cared about anyone or thing, I might have died like so many brilliant women with a drawer full of unseen genius and a heart full of sad bitterness.”
It’s an odd message for a film ostensibly intended for children. The sentiment simultaneously invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and while the film’s titular Cruella both takes this message to heart then ultimately (very feebly) rejects it, the audience clearly isn’t supposed to. However, Cruella refuses to give the greater Take Factory at large what it wants—a straightforward, easy to parse message about feminism being good and capitalism being bad even if beautiful, expensive outfits are very fun to look at, perhaps a smart move on giant corporation Disney’s part, considering all the free press that refusal has earned. But nothing the film does is any more egregious than any other film with a point of view muddled by the interference of a billion-dollar company attempting to make a multi-million-dollar film mild enough to earn its money back by appealing to anyone who might be watching. In fact, Cruella might just be a little more subversive than most by refusing to make a hero of any of the bad women in a superficial industry propped up by old, bloody money. But whether that’s the case or not, there would almost certainly be no case to be made if the film didn’t star two women.
In the end, Cruella defeats the bad lady and takes her place within the aristocratic fashion elite, where she will one day become the woman who wants to skin a bunch of puppies to make a coat. One bad white lady replaces another bad white lady to become rich and mean, a final message that is messy, perhaps unfeminist, likely more true to life than we would perhaps like our children’s movies to be, and ultimately, not that fucking serious, considering the messenger.