Here’s the thing: I think Cruella (2021) works very well as a prequel to 101 Dalmatians (1996).
A quick plot summary, cribbed from Wikipedia:
Set in London during the punk rock movement of the 1970s, the film revolves around Estella Miller, an aspiring fashion designer, as she explores the path that will lead her to become a notorious up-and-coming fashion designer known as Cruella de Vil.
When Cruella came out, I remember reading a couple of reviews and ‘hot takes’ online that argued that it could not be a prequel because the characterisation of Cruella is so wildly different (she’s the hero of the film, she has a dog companion, she doesn’t wear fur, etc). One reviewer even says that Cruella’s transformation from plucky genius to a puppy-skinning maniac “makes increasingly less sense the more you learn about the character”. Another ponders: “What all this has to do with becoming a puppy-hating hag, I’m still not sure.”
Respectfully, I disagree.
You see, The Wrap’s reviewer, Andi Ortiz writes: “The film leaves us with a pretty big question mark, however, by not quite turning Cruella into the cartoon villain we know and love.” That’s true, but if you look at how the story ends then I would argue that there is a very clear recognition that Estella’s shadow self, Cruella, is completely in charge, and that she will eventually become the Cruella we know and love.
Cruella’s transformation from plucky orphan to cartoon villain makes perfect sense as long as you buy into the main conceit of the narrative: that this is the story of how Estella died.
“That necklace is the reason I’m dead.” – one of the first lines said in narration
At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Estella – a baby girl born with half-white, half-black hair. She is driven, hopeful, ambitious, and creative, but occasionally violent (when provoked) and rude. Her ‘mother’ (adopted) calls the negative parts of Estella’s personality ‘Cruella’, and teaches her to consider Cruella as someone separate from herself.
This essentially establishes Cruella as a persona. A shadow, as Jung might say. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative. Jungians maintain that the “the shadow contains, besides the personal shadow, the shadow of society… fed by the neglected and repressed collective values” (Fordham, 19778, 5). There are apparently three steps to engaging with the shadow: encountering the shadow, merging with the shadow, and assimilation with the shadow (Jung, 1996)
Upon encountering the shadow in the first few minutes of the film, Estella’s mother tells her to “be polite, and good, and friendly”, and to keep Cruella from getting the better of her by asking her to leave. Once Estella’s mother dies (in a dalmatian-related cliff accident), Cruella is almost completely supressed by the Estella persona; the film carries on with Estella meeting her friends Jasper and Horace, and turning into the plucky orphan who dreams of being a fashion designer.
Importantly, the Estella persona loses a lot of her ambition. She falls into the pattern of petty crime and spends her time gazing longingly at adverts for clothing brands, but she doesn’t appear to have any drive or initiative. It is Jasper who arranges a job for her, and her own drunken antics that get the attention of the Baroness. It seems that the Cruella persona took with her all of Estella’s less ‘desirable’ traits.
During one of Estella’s monologues to the fountain in Regent’s Park, she speaks to her mother’s spirit, and tells her “I’m really trying to be the Estella you wanted. Mostly it’s working.” She is deliberately focusing on the Estella persona by suppressing as much of the Cruella persona as possible.
But of course, Cruella does not stay suppressed forever. The ‘merging with the shadow’ phase begins when Estella needs to infiltrate the Baroness’s black and white ball, and she takes on the Cruella persona so that the Baroness won’t recognise her. This is the first time that we see the Cruella persona since Estella was a child. Instead of seeing the same slightly-violent, a little bit rude Cruella from childhood, we see a rather dismissive, haughty, and arrogant woman with similar mannerisms, posturing, and accent to the Baroness herself.
So the shadow has returned, and she has modelled her behaviour off of the Baroness. After she embraces the Cruella persona, she begins to treat Estella as the shadow. That’s an important thing to note, because it establishes the persona’s base characterisation – which is something that will become very important as she grows into the woman who will eventually be the antagonist in 101 Dalmatians.
Jasper and Horace try to tell her that the grift is over, and that she doesn’t need to maintain the accent or the costume, but they are both shunted to the side in favour of Cruella’s ambition. Jasper, in particular, who acts as the emotional centre of the group, recognises and laments Estella’s changing attitude.
The Cruella begins to merge into Estella’s regular persona. When she is working with the Baroness, she becomes more rude and self-serving. She laughs when the Baroness injures a waiter, and calls a delivery man an idiot for being late. She jokes with Jasper about making the Baroness’s dogs into a coat, though at this point Jasper is so concerned about Estella’s mindset that he doesn’t believe that she is joking.
Estella’s character arc follows the standard formula for female-driven films: ‘Rebellion, Ruination, Redemption’. It is centred, mainly, on her friends. She rebels (by taking on the Cruella persona and isolating Jasper and Horace), she is ruined (when Jasper and Horace turn on her) and she is redeemed (when she apologises to Jasper and Horace). Her redemption is clear when she promises Jasper that she won’t kill the Baroness.
However, you’ll notice in this scene that Cruella’s makeup is fully done up, and that her accent dips in and out of Estella and Cruella. She has assimilated with the shadow.
While Estella’s narrative arc is redeemed, she also dies. She wears her Estella persona when she confronts the Baroness at Hellman Hall, and it is Estella whom the Baroness pushes off the cliff to her death.
At the conclusion of the film, Estella is legally deceased. The plan to take vengeance on the Baroness actually hinges on that fact. The Baroness will go to jail for killing Estella, though Estella would have liked her to go to jail for her mother’s murder instead. And with Estella dead, her inheritance passes “to her dear friend, Cruella de Vil”, thus allowing the main characters to take over the Baroness’s house and fortune at the end of the film. But Estella is also figuratively dead. She had assimilated the shadow completely and, with the main persona gone, the shadow is all that is left.
Her funeral is held, her friends say goodbye, and Cruella tosses her necklace into the grave and says: “Goodbye Estella [She was with her mother now] I’ll take it from here [But Cruella was alive]”
Cruella (2021) is the comedy that comes before the tragedy; the high before the fall. Cruella is the new main persona in her body. The shadow self has taken over, and Cruella de Vil is ready to begin a slow, potentially grisly transformation into the woman we will eventually see in 101 Dalmatians.