Chalk it up to our eternal fascination with human evil or to a movie industry that's short on original ideas, but it seems like almost every classic villain nowadays is guaranteed their own feature-length backstory. The results have been a mixed but not uninteresting bag, and they've allowed some fine actors to go entertainingly over-the-top: Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his psychic meltdown as the Joker, and Maleficent, a clever reframing of Sleeping Beauty, remains one of only a few movies that have put Angelina Jolie's otherworldly screen presence to effective use.
The latest example of this trend is Cruella, and it's, well, a mixed but not uninteresting bag. Like Maleficent, it's a Disney live-action movie inspired by an earlier Disney animated classic—in this case, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It's set in 1970s London, and it means to show us the youthful origins of Cruella de Vil, that fascist fashionista who kidnapped a litter of Dalmatian puppies and tried to turn them into a spotted fur coat.
The thing is, though, that dog killers aren't the most sympathetic protagonists, and this movie definitely wants us to sympathize. As a result, this Cruella doesn't really seem evil enough to commit puppycide by movie's end. She's presented as a rebel—impatient, perpetually misunderstood and unwilling to play by the rules of a world that casts her aside at every turn.
Cruella is already a mischief maker when we first meet her as a young girl named Estella. Her loving mother tries to put her on the straight and narrow, but after a series of tragic events, Estella is orphaned and left to fend for herself on the streets of London. A few years later, Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is a seasoned grifter committing robberies with her buddies Horace and Jasper. (They're played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry.)