Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights the movies that inspired or otherwise contributed to the making of Disney’s Cruella.
Do you know the origins of the 2021 Disney movie Cruella? In 1956, from June through September, Women’s Day magazine published a serialized fiction story by Dodie Smith (with illustrations by William Pene Dubois) called “The Great Dog Robbery,” introducing the fur-obsessed, black-and-white-haired character Cruella de Vil. Later that same year, the UK company Heinemann released the same story, retitled The Hundred and One Dalmatians, in book form with new illustrations by twin sisters Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. Viking Press handled the US publication the following year, at which time Walt Disney read the children’s novel (which in magazine form was called “a novel for dogs”) and immediately sought the rights for its adaptation.
The resulting movie, an animated feature, retitled again as One Hundred and One Dalmatians, opened in theaters in January 1961 with the now furrier-husband-less and Persian-cat-less Cruella de Vil making her cinematic debut as the studio’s reigning new queen of villainy (New York Times critic Howard Thompson said she “makes the Snow White witch seem like Pollyanna“; thirty years later, reviewing the film’s re-release, Roger Ebert wrote, “she’s in a league with the Wicked Stepmother and the other great Disney villainesses). Disney remade the movie in live-action form, retitled again as 101 Dalmatians, which was released in 1996 with Glenn Close portraying Cruella, now essentially the focal character. A sequel, 102 Dalmatians, followed in 2000.
Twenty-five years later, Disney spotlights Cruella de Vil again with the live-action Cruella, a prequel loosely connected to both the animated original and the 1996 version that reimagines the iconic baddie as an orphan turned thief turned fashion designer in 1970s London. With the character’s origin story now presented on screen and that movie’s most literal origin story laid out easily above, I still want to highlight and recommend more of the specifically cinematic heritage of Cruella beyond the obvious. From acknowledged influences to unofficial yet certain precursors with regards to character traits, scenes and set pieces, plot points, tropes, and more, these are the movies that inspired and/or generated the Disney Villain showcase.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Disney’s original animated feature has as much influence on Cruella as the new movie’s literal source material. As recognized in the New York Times quote above, the Evil Queen had long been, and somewhat remains to this day, the archetype for Disney Villains. But even if the animated Cruella de Vil was understandably compared to Snow White’s nemesis, who happened to be her stepmother, she wasn’t that similar to the earlier baddie. In Cruella, however, The Baroness (Emma Thompson) has traces of the Evil Queen in the way she orders the death of her own child due to her narcissistic jealousy. And she has a henchman who can’t carry through with killing the girl. In the original fairytale, the Evil Queen was actually Snow White’s biological mother.
Available to stream on Disney+.
Another quote from Howard Thompson’s New York Times review of One Hundred and One Dalmatians likens the animated Cruella de Vil to “a sadistic Auntie Mame, drawn by Charles Addams and with a Tallulah Bankhead bass.” As it turns out, Bankhead was one of the literal inspirations for the look of the character, according to Marc Davis, the animator responsible for her design — Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell were two others, though the official model was character actress Mary Wickes.
But Cruella’s voice may have been coincidentally like Bankhead’s due to actual Cruella voice actor Betty Lou Gerson being raised in Alabama, same as Bankhead. “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 told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. Still, Cruella pays homage to the myth of Bankhead being a vocal inspiration by having Emma Stone’s incarnation of the character see Bankhead laughing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat on television and emulating it.
Available to rent.
All About Eve (1950)
As previously mentioned, the animated Cruella de Vil was also inspired by Rosalind Russell, apparently specifically in the 1958 adaptation of Auntie Mame, and Bette Davis, apparently specifically in All About Eve. I can’t really find more than a fan wiki source for those films being involved with the inspiration for Marc Davis’ characterization of the One Hundred and One Dalmatians villain, but All About Eve does have two connections worthy of mention. The first is that Tallulah Bankhead believed Davis’ character, Margo Channing, was based on her in the original short story (“The Wisdom of Eve”) and that Davis was purposefully imitating her as well in the portrayal. Neither is certain, but Bankhead did also play the role in a 1952 radio play.
The other connection is the presumed influence of All About Eve on the screenplay for Cruella, which creates a back story for the titular villain in which she’s the fan turned mentee of a famous fashion designer but then becomes the industry veteran’s rival and eventual successor. It’s a loose parallel to the story of All About Eve, in which a young actress is mentored by her idol, a Broadway star (Davis’ Margo Channing), before becoming her rival and then surpassing her in notoriety. There are plenty of other movies inspired by All About Eve worth checking out as a bridge to Cruella as well, such as Showgirls (1996), Love Crime (2010), and The Neon Demon (2016), which is set in the fashion world but focused on models rather than designers.
Available to rent.
Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978)
These two highly influential blockbuster movies arrived toward the end of the 1970s (the presumed time period of Cruella), and they clearly continue to inform Hollywood storytelling today. With Star Wars, you have the orphan hero who believes the Big Bad killed his parent but (as is revealed later in its sequel, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back), it turns out the Big Bad is in fact their true biological parent. In both Star Wars and Cruella, the orphan hero’s adoptive parent(s) is/are murdered through the command of the villain, too. Having young Estella/Cruella witness her “mother’s” death as intentionally caused by the Baroness also evokes the scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker sees his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi struck down by Darth Vader.
As for Superman, the prototypical superhero movie starring Christopher Reeve as the titular DC Comics character is felt in the duality of Cruella and the silly but allowed manner in which nobody, not even those very close to her, recognizes Cruella as being Estella in barely a veiled difference in appearance. The whole Superman/Clark Kent dynamic isn’t specific to this movie, of course, as it’s an element of the comic books and had already been an element of previous screen versions of the character. And the way that Cruella/Estella has a connection at a newspaper is as much akin to Spider-Man as it is to Superman given that Anita Darling is a photojournalist taking pics of the mysterious Cruella as well as a columnist. But given the timing, the movie fits.
Available to stream on Disney+ and HBO Max, respectively.
Jubilee (1978) and Death Is Their Destiny (1978)
There’s no telling when precisely Cruella is supposed to take place, but the setting is somewhat informed by the UK punk rock scene of the 1970s, as centered around London’s King’s Road. By 1978, the punk movement was already getting too big and trendy, and Derek Jarman’s provocative cult classic Jubilee arrived at the time to showcase and also critically exploit the scene, featuring real punk icons as well as characters allegedly based on others, including punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Jubilee spawned a lifelong feud between Jarman and Westwood, who also definitely inspired the main character’s portrayal in Cruella. Westwood famously slammed the film through fashion, which is surely something Cruella would have done, too.
Westwood herself makes an appearance in the short documentary Death Is Their Destiny, which has become a significant historical record of the King’s Road punk scene at the time. It features Super 8 footage shot by Philip Munnoch, a.k.a. Captain Zip, who also made the more fashion-focused punk films Don’t Dream It – See It (1978) and We’re No Angels (1979) as he continued these punk rock home movies for a few years. I could go on and on about other relevant chronicles of the scene and the music, from 1977’s Punk in London and Julien Temple’s many early Sex Pistols docs to Don Letts’ The Punk Rock Movie (1978) and beyond. But you can find the most essential recommendations in a comprehensive BFI list published in 2016.
Jubilee is available to stream on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel. Death Is Their Destiny is available to stream on the BFI Player in the UK.
The Terminator (1984) and Hook (1991)
Two more major Hollywood studio movies that have nothing in common except for Cruella having nods to both. The Terminator is not an acknowledged homage, but despite the fact that these things sometimes happen in real life, Cruella driving a garbage truck into the front of a police station is just too reminiscent of the similar crash attack by the T-1000 in James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller to not be intentional. As for Hook, Steven Spielberg’s live-action fantasy film — set after the events of the Peter Pan story as depicted in a Disney animated film, so it’s like the opposite of what the prequel Cruella is doing — has been named in connection to Paul Walter Hauser‘s portrayal of Horace. Specifically, he says he modeled his accent on Bob Hoskins as Smee.
“I studied Bob Hoskins quite a bit in preparation for this role,” Hauser told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. “I was given two options by the dialect coach Neil Swain; he said to me, ‘Do you want to go for a Bob Hoskins or a Ray Winstone?’… and I couldn’t shake Bob Hoskins as Smee from the movie Hook. I just felt like that was dead on and what I had to do. So I studied that, I did it and I’m happy really, really happy with how it turned out. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’ll fool some people who don’t know my work very well.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Netflix, respectively.