She may not be the title character, but there’s no question that Cruella de Vil is a bigger star than any of the 100+ canines who populate the Walt Disney animated favorite 101 Dalmatians. Sixty years after the original cartoon feature debuted in theaters on Jan. 25, 1961, the fur-loving heiress has classed up animated sequels, live-action adaptations — including the upcoming prequel, Cruella, starring Emma Stone — and all kinds of spinoffs, from TV shows and YA novels to board games and the Olympic Games. She’s also left her distinct imprint on many of the Disney villains that followed in her dog-snatching wake: the sea witch, Ursula, the would-be lion king, Scar, and the scheming Yzma have all displayed Cruella-like tendencies and cadences.
Absent of supernatural gifts like sleep-inducing apples or spear-carrying playing cards, what’s the secret of Cruella’s staying power? Simply put, she was the first modern Disney villain in the first modern Disney movie. When 101 Dalmatians arrived in theaters, it represented the struggling studio’s attempt to bounce back from the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty two years earlier. Rather than spin another fairy tale yarn or a fantasy-laden period piece, Disney decided to embrace the changing times. Working from Dodie Smith’s 1956 children’s book, the creative team behind 101 Dalmatians pointedly retained its mid-century London setting. “It’s a contemporary story made to play in that time period,” notes Disney animator, Eric Goldberg, in the 2008 making-of featurette, Redefining the Line.
And Cruella was, and is, a decidedly contemporary villain. Departing from the studio’s tradition of wicked queens and nature-based threats, she steps out of her sleek car (modeled after a Rolls-Royce) as a fashion-forward scion of high society. Materialism is her motivation, not power or vengeance, and her unapologetic greed lends her villainous pursuits — in this case, kidnapping a litter of Dalmatian puppies to make a resplendently spotted fur coat — a comic edge. “She was a funny villainess,” Marc Davis, the veteran Disney animator who brought her to life, remarks in Redefining the Line. “While what she was doing wasn’t very nice, she herself was an entertaining character.”
For his swan song as a Disney animator, Davis kept himself entertained by finding visual ways to match the florid descriptions of Cruella featured in Bill Lee’s centerpiece song. “She’s like a spider waiting for the kill,” sings human hero Roger Radcliffe, the married co-owner of the Dalmatian brood that she covets, perfectly describing the movement of her spindly limbs. And the character’s entertainment value is enhanced by Betty Lou Gerson’s hilariously exaggerated vocal performance, which matched Davis’s portrait of Cruella as a consequence-defying narcissist.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 1991, the actress described her alter ego’s specific patter as resembling, “Someone who’s set sail from New York but hasn’t quite reached England.” And in the Los Angeles Times that same year, she confirmed the longstanding suspicion that Hollywood glamazon, Tallulah Bankhead, was also part of the character’s DNA. “I didn’t intentionally imitate her. I was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and Tallulah was from Jasper. We both had phony English accents on top of our Southern accents and a great deal of flair. So our voices came out that way.”
Gerson died in 1999, but she lived long enough to see Cruella re-emerge as one of Disney’s most popular villains following Glenn Close’s theatrical portrayal in the 1996 live-action remake. “The thing that I did was I felt she wasn’t mean enough,” the actress told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. “I got permission to go back to the original and put in some of the dialogue, like, [in Cruella voice] ‘Chloroform them!’ or ‘Drown them!’ Because the worse she was, the more effective she was. And in some cases, the funnier she was.”
Close reprised the role one more time in the sequel, 102 Dalmatians, which was released to mixed critical and commercial response in 2000. As soon as 2014’s Maleficent made the multiplex safe for live-action adaptations of Disney cartoons, though, plans were immediately set in motion to bring Cruella back, this time as the star of her own movie. Filmed in 2019 and set for release on May 28, the Craig Gillespie-directed Cruella takes place in the 1970s when a younger, punk rock-ish Cruella (played by Stone) simply goes by Estella, and learns how to break bad courtesy of Emma Thompson’s haughty Baroness.
While the online reaction to Cruella has been lukewarm, to say the least, Stone has promised that she’s sticking to the “larger than life” portrayal that worked for Close and Gerson in the past. “It’s been a great experience to play around with her backstory and discover what makes her the woman she becomes in the story we’ve seen,” she remarked to Vogue in 2019. As long as there are Dalmatians to dog-nap, she’s a character we’re sure to keep seeing for another sixty years.
101 Dalmatians is currently streaming on Disney+.
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