A Tale of Two Movies
Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing
Young members of our family recommended a new movie for streaming from home: Cruella.
It’s the story of how the villain in “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” animated film from 1961 got to be so bad. Cruella DeVil kidnapped baby dalmatians and held them captive: how could anybody be so bad?
Perhaps in today’s world there was an unrealized desire on the part of the American public to explore the psychological background of a villainess who would abuse puppies that way: what could make her hate black and white dogs? Who knew?
Disney this year did not go specifically for that particular psychological quandary, but instead focused on the larger question: what made Cruella so evil?
We rented (or was it bought) the movie and it wasn’t cheap. I suppose I didn’t really register that instead of the cute animation of the black and white puppies and a dopey kidnap truck careening around, what we would get would be live action. Disney now does live action.
It was, indeed, the gorgeously produced saga of how Cruella as a child had been deprived of her mother by a fashion designer who, at an elegant evening party, called out the dogs on her as the mother stood by a high cliff. She fell off and was killed; the little girl then named Estella was forced to live on the London streets with two boys who became her buddies.
The plot goes on from there, revealing the design talent of that waif Estella, who grows up to be a PA in the fashion industry –and the depravity of the woman known as the Baroness, played by Emma Stone. Determined to avenge the death of her mother off the cliff, Estella determines to find out the details of the Baroness’s life and to punish her.
In a series of cleverly manipulated machinations, Estella gets the best of the Barnoness and discovers this elegant fashion designer is, surprisingly, her own birth mother. The dear mother who was pushed off the cliff was an assistant of the fashion icon. Estella, now Cruella, will devote her life to punishing the Baroness and living a life of evil.
So that’s it. So that’s it??
The overwhelming beauty of the presentation, the fashion costumes, the events to promote them with fireworks flowing across starry skies, champagne sparkling at parties in elegant settings—all bewitch us as we watch. But when the fireworks die down and the heroine drifts off to plot her evil designs, we are left with an emptiness. What are we supposed to register here? What kind of lesson is there, if lesson there is? What comment on the human condition? That everything is a rat race with superficial splendor and elegant riches as the goal and—we should trample over everyone to get them no matter how depraved we have to be? And punish everybody who gets in our way? That’s it?
I had the apprehension, and taught my college English classes, that great literature made comments on the human condition, perhaps gave insights into how to live a little better, realize the one-ness with the human race or even spread a modicum of good. I shouldn’t expect Disney, I guess to be Sophocles, Chekov, Tennessee Williams or even Gilbert and Sullivan. And times have changed.
And these are fantasies, presenting themselves with the vestiges of the cartoons which fostered them still clinging around their garments. They are supposed to be broad-brushed and not believable.
OK, but I miss Dumbo. I’d rather risk a little stupid stereotyping to get the great, sustained artistic message that it’s painful to watch the mocking of those who are different from us.
Or better yet, take a look at the next film I’d like to explore: an earlier Emma Stone movie Stranger than Fiction.