Estella & Cruella | The Backstory of a Villain
“I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might I never was. I’m Cruella, born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad."
A tale of good vs. evil is nothing new to the big screen. Most movies we watch clearly distinguish the hero from the villain, but in recent years, the lines are becoming blurry. We are hearing more and more stories from the villains point of view. How did the villain become villainous? What led to their downward spiral? Cruella looks for answers to these exact questions.
After all, Cruella wasn't always Cruella. Her name was actually Estella. She was once an innocent child. She had a loving mother. She started off trying to do the right thing. But like all of us, Estella has a story. You can't help but feel empathy for young Estella when [spoiler alert] her mother suddenly dies, and she is destined to a life on the streets. Even the dim-witted henchmen from 101 Dalmatians become fan favorites as they take in orphaned Estella when she needs friends the most. We find ourselves caring for, even liking Estella, Jasper, and Horace. But wait a second, aren't they supposed to be the bad guys?!?
When we meet Estella as an adult, the audience is cheering for her to succeed in life and at her dream job--becoming a famous fashion designer in London. She is hungry, talented, and innovative, living up to the meaning behind her name, "star". This young woman with the cards stacked against her still shines bright no matter what comes her way. She's the underdog who we hope will one day get her big shot. Things finally turn around for Estella when the Baroness, a renowned designer, takes notice of Estella's unique style and offers her a job.
Hurray! Estella deserved a win!
We think that she is going to be okay and then...
...the unraveling begins.
It turns out that the Baroness was the one who killed her mother. Well, the Baroness killed Estella's adoptive mother because the Baroness is her actual mother (but that's another story). This realization flips a switch in Estella, and the girl that we have been cheering for, the girl with all the potential in the world, lets revenge take root deep within her heart. Estella becomes Cruella. She exchanges her name meaning "star" for one meaning "evil or cruel" instead. One evil deed leads to the next, and nothing seems to quench Cruella's fire to become an agent of justice in a world that has done her wrong. Jasper (Estella's street friend friend turned henchman) doesn't care for the change he sees in his friend, and like all of us, misses Estella. To our dismay, Estella is no more and Cruella takes the reins.
This is a tragic, deflating story that leaves us wanting more. Because it is a villain origin story, we know what happens next, but it doesn't stop us from wanting something better. This is not the way a good story is supposed to end. In the quote at the beginning of this post, Cruella says that she was born bad, but we know better. We have seen a different side of Cruella, a better side. That is the biggest tragedy of all. Cruella convinces herself that all hope is lost.
This is why I am torn when I watch movies like Cruella. I have a love/hate relationship with villain backstories. Cruella. Maleficent. Joker. Syndrome (From the Incredibles). All of these stories humanize people who were once dehumanized (LOVE IT!) while at the same time creating a feeling of emptiness deep within our story soul (HATE IT!).
So, should we introduce our kids to stories that end like Cruella? I say yes (at the right time and with open conversations), but you can make that decision for your family. Here are the upsides and downsides that I see in villain backstories:
Villain backstories reveal our human-ness. We are all sinners in need of a Savior, and there are times in our lives where evil reigns in our hearts. It also allows us to picture what the results of sin are in our lives. There are consequences to our sins. In my view, Cruella's actions are not glorified. Estella was the hero who quickly turned villain when she let revenge take over her heart.
Movies like Cruella give us the opportunity to teach our kids that every person has a story. If we only watched 101 Dalmations, we wouldn't know why Cruella is the way she is. Cruella's decision to embrace revenge isn't justified, but her backstory does give us a brand new insight into her story.
Finally, the origin story of a well-known villain is only the beginning. Even though we haven't seen a villain turn their lives around, there is always a possibility that it could happen. Because of Jesus, redemption is available until the very end. Anyone can change, even a villain as mad as Cruella. I want my kids to know this truth deep in their souls because there may be times when they feel like they are too far gone to receive grace. And in those moments, I want them to remember that because of Jesus, there is always forgiveness to be had and a new future to be written.
Cruella's justification for revenge is not okay. When we feel empathy for Estella's situation, it might become easy for us to accept her sinful actions. This would be a great conversation to have with your kids. God is our judge, not us, and He is the one who will one day bring justice.
Much of the content in Cruella is geared for the 13 plus crowd (that's why it's rated PG-13). Exposing your kids to movies like Cruella too early could do more harm than good. As a parent, we have to discern when the right time is to introduce our kids to all different kinds of stories. Always do your research first, and if possible, preview the content ahead of time to make sure you can make a wise decision.