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But Really, Who *Is* Disney’s Iconic Cruella de Vil?

Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil. If she doesn’t scare you No evil thing will… for decades that song has been stuck in my head since I first watched Disney’s “101 Dalmatians,” it’s a catchy tune, and if you just hum a few bars from it, you just may get it stuck in your head as well. But who exactly is Cruella de Vil and why is she so evil?

Before Disney released the live-action movie “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone as the titular character, Cruella de Vil has been one of Disney’s evilest of all characters. No seriously, “Cruel” and “devil” are right in her name. I mean, if being able to kidnap a bunch of puppies just to have their fur doesn’t define you as evil, I don’t know what will. Cruella is so evil that she beats out Freddy Krueger and the Joker on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains.

In Craig Gillespi‘s “Cruella,” this is the first we see of her coming-of-age story, and rise in the fashion world. But, let’s look at the true origins of Ms. de Vil.

Cruella in Print

Dodie Smith wrote “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians” in 1956, and introduced the world to Cruella de Vil. In the book, Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, the human owners of the dalmatians, are out for a walk when a car stops and out comes Cruella. “She was wearing a tight-fitting emerald satin dress, several ropes of rubies, and an absolutely simple white mink cloak, which reached to the high heels of her ruby-red shoes,” Smith wrote. Mrs. Dearly recalls knowing Cruella from school – and that she had been “expelled for drinking ink” allegedly. You may not remember the Dearlys because their names were changed to Roger Dearly and Anita Darling for the films.

In the novel, Cruella is married to a furrier, and tells Mrs. Dearly that she kept her last name only because she is the last surviving member of her family. Details are provided stating how Hill Hall became Hell Hall, the property where the dalmatians are held captive. After a night of thunderstorms, “the lightning was coming not from the skies but from de Vil.” (“Cruella” includes a scene at the mansion with similar weather.)

Besides all of this, Smith doesn’t say much more about the villain’s backstory. Though some characters differ between film and novel, the plot of The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is the same across all mediums: after the Dearlys’ dogs have puppies, Cruella tries to buy them, multiple times, but the family denies her requests every time. So Cruella, being the villain that she is, takes the matter into her own hands and hires thieves to steal the puppies. The adult dogs, Pongo and Perdita go on a mission to find them. When they do, they discover other puppies that were stolen as well. In a conversation between Cruella and the henchmen, she makes a statement, capturing her cruelty: “Poison them, drown them, hit them on the head. Have you any chloroform in the larder?”

From Print to Screen

Cruella de Vil, Walt Disney

Walt Disney bout the rights for “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians” immediately after the book was published. The animated movie came to the big screen in 1961, marking this as Disney Animations Studios’ first Xerox processing done for the drawings. The movie was a tremendous success, and was the highest-grossing movie of the year. To this day, it has made over $300 million.

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In the film, Cruella’s evil qualities were heightened more than what they were in the book. Marc Davis (animator behind “Sleeping Beauty” villain Maleficent) said he based Cruella on a woman he met in actual life, and actor Tallulah Bankhead. He wanted Cruella to move and act like someone you wouldn’t like.

Brought to Live Action

Glenn Close, “101 Dalmatians” Walt Disney Studios

The animated movie was so popular that three decades later, a live-action version of the film followed with Glenn Close starring. In this film, Cruella was running her own fashion company, the House of DeVil. Perhaps this was inspiration for “Cruella,” in which Emma Stone plays an up-and-coming designer.

In the 1996 version, Close dressed in so many glamorous outfits that were so elaborate, she couldn’t sit down properly in them. Close’s Cruella to fans were more of a feminist icon in their eyes. Close said she enjoyed playing such a ruthless villain in an interview from 1996: “I think Cruella basically has no redeeming human characteristics. Except she does have a sense of humor, albeit wicked. She’s a GREAT character. She’s gleeful in her evilness, and there’s something very engaging about that.”

The New Take

Emma Stone as Cruella/ Disney

In the latest live-action Disney film, Stone plays a young de Vil. She’s a designer who lands a coveted job working for Emma Thompson‘s Baroness von Hellman, set in the 1970s London’s fashion scene. Stone said that she took inspiration for her version from both the animated movie and Close’s performance.

While fashion is one of de Vil’s central interests across each adaptation, it seems her iconic fur obsession was dropped in this film. In this version, de Vil does not and will not harm any animals. And as an animal lover myself, while it’s different to have the main villainous quality missing, this version is in fact a fresh breath of air for audiences. Perhaps because of the fervor of certain animal rights groups, the studio may have found it too risky to keep one of the signature characteristics of this villain.

Cruella” is in theaters nationwide and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access.

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