By wedging in a manufactured tragedy instead of letting Cruella’s nature of being “born bad” stand on its own, the death scene undermines the movie.
Warning: Major SPOILERS for Cruella below.
Despite it being a fun movie, Estella’s mother’s death scene in Cruella almost ruins the entire movie. The live-action film is Disney’s second villain to get the origin story treatment after Maleficent. With Emma Stone in the lead, Cruella aims to humanize the Dalmatian puppy-skinning maniac by showing who she was before her full transformation into a villain and providing a sympathetic backstory. While most of it works, some of it would have been best left on the cutting room floor.
The inciting event from which the entire rest of Cruella’s life and motivations stem is the death of her mother. The scene happens early in the movie, when Cruella is still the young, mischievous girl, Estella. Estella and her mother, Catherine, show up at the estate of the Baronness during a swanky gala. Catherine, a former employee of the filthy rich Baronness, is there to ask her former employer for a bit of money. Rather than extend some compassion, the Baronness silently whistles for her trained Dalmatian attack dogs, who leap at Estella’s mother and push her off a cliff into the sea. Cruella keeps Disney’s dead parents tradition alive and well.
It’s meant to be a horrifying moment, and it is – for Estella. For the audience watching, it comes across as extraordinarily cheesy and ridiculous, a moment that elicits belly laughs and incredulity rather than sympathy. Twitter had a field day with it, with the scene immediately being memed and with good reason. The death scene is executed poorly on multiple levels, which, on its own, wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Cruella wouldn’t be the first movie to have an ill-placed or corny moment, nor will it be the last. The problem is that it is a pivotal scene, the pivotal scene, the scene meant to establish the audience’s sympathetic foundation for the character and the one that is referred to throughout the rest of the movie. Because of its importance to the rest of Cruella’s narrative, it almost ruins the rest of the movie completely.
One issue is that the CGI in the death scene is just frankly bad. The Dalmatians have that wonky, intangible look that happens when fast-moving characters are fully CGI rendered, as does Catherine when she rag-dolls off the balcony and into the sea. An unnecessarily dark color palette and strange inverted camera flip both underscore the idea that this is a scene meant to be taken seriously. It’s hard to take a scene seriously, however, while wondering why a woman would just stand there while a trio of barking dogs is barreling toward her, dogs that are slightly blurry and unreal.
The rest of the movie is spent directly undermining the necessity of that scene and the impact that moment had on her turn toward becoming Cruella. Her mother’s death scene worked hard to provide a reason for Cruella’s desire for revenge, her breaking bad. But one of the repeated messages of the movie, as well as the realization she finally embraces, directly contradicts the need for her mother’s death to be the thing that sets her on her path: “The thing is, I was born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad.” Estella would have become Cruella no matter what. It’s who she is. So has she actually always been this way or was her mother’s death the thing that caused it? The movie contradicts its messaging.
Likewise, the death scene is also meant to provide a reason that Cruella may have gained a hatred of Dalmatians strong enough to account for her eventually wanting to skin them alive. Yet it never connects the dots; by the end of the movie, Cruella has not only adopted the Baronness’s Dalmatians as her own but she’s also gifted Roger and Anita the Dalmatian puppies Perdita and Pongo. Unfortunately, Cruella tried to have it both ways, wanting to play up the coolness of her “born bad” vibe while also wedging in a manufactured tragedy to elicit sympathy because it wasn’t confident enough to allow her innate nature to stand on its own merits.