Disney is at it again. I love a good villain-turned-hero story and this one did not let me down. Now, we all know that movies and TV shows are notorious for dramatizing adoption stories into some grand, tragic tale of betrayal and devious intentions. Did Cruella do this? Sure. Was I on the edge of my seat wanting more? Absolutely! I was eating this film up and I couldn’t get enough. (Come on, let me enjoy the drama and accept that the reality of my adoption story doesn’t need an accurate recreation on-screen… this time.) Let’s get to it. [SPOILER ALERT]
Who is Estella?
The movie begins with the introduction of young Estella. Her black and white hair was enough to make her stand out in a crowd, but Estella also stepped into the spotlight of every situation through her confident, rebellious tendencies. Estella was not the type to ignore the teasing of her classmates; instead, she stood up for herself. Unfortunately, standing up for herself meant getting even and causing trouble. For each incident, Estella was sent to the principal’s office where she received demerits in the form of black splotch on her permanent record. Before long, Estella’s file was spotted like a dalmatian: a visual representation of her rebellious behavior.
In some ways, Estella seemed to feel like a black splotch on a white piece of paper herself. Going to a school where everyone is wearing boring uniforms, Estella felt her genius creativity was being muffled by her surroundings. Her dream was to become a fashion designer. How was she supposed to express herself when everyone keeps getting in her way? Her mother supported Estella’s individuality and wanted to give her every opportunity to follow her dreams. She also encouraged her to be kind and patient instead of cruel. After all, her name is Estella, not Cruella.
Eventually, Estella’s bad behavior resulted in a standoff between her mother and the principal. Estella was ultimately pulled out of school and began heading toward London with her mom to relocate for a fresh start. On the way, a tragic accident results in her mother’s death by Dalmatian attack; Estella witnesses her mother’s horrifying death and even believes that she is responsible for it. She runs and before long makes it to London as an orphan.
Although she was now an orphan in a strange city, Estella befriends Jasper and Horace—two boys who are also left to the streets after their parents’ deaths. The trio gets by finding shelter in an abandoned building, stealing, and conning their way to survival. Estella uses her sewing skills to create elaborate disguises for pick-pocketing and strategic thievery as the three get older. Jasper eventually helps Estella get a job at her favorite upscale clothing store. Her skills are undeniable—yet she is still held back by poverty and a prissy fashion store manager who won’t give her a shot as a seamstress. Estella is stuck scrubbing the bathroom floors. She could not be more unsatisfied.
At her breaking point, Estella—in a drunken episode—redesigns the store’s window display in true Estella fashion: graffiti, color, and texture that gets everyone’s attention. It especially caught the eye of the Baroness, a prestigious fashion designer who hired Estella immediately after seeing the display. Right when things start looking up for Estella, though, she makes a grave discovery. The Baroness is the owner of the dalmatians that killed Estella’s mother those many years before—she was there that night her mother was killed and may have been the reason she died at all. That is when the switch is flipped.
“There are five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Well, I’d like to add one more…revenge.” – Cruella
As the Baroness’ new, talented seamstress, Estella learns exactly what makes the Baroness tick—power, fortune, and fame. Estella not only knew how to get under the Baroness’ skin, but she had the skill to do it. With the help of her friends, Estella begins to upstage the Baroness at different events around the city as the masked Cruella. She steals the show arriving in fantastic, original gowns, using the tabloids in her favor, and finding every opportunity to sabotage the Baroness’ success. But her identity couldn’t be kept a secret for long.
Estella/Cruella went to pretty lavish ends to cause the Baroness some pain, but the Baroness’ idea of revenge was far more psychotic than Cruella’s could ever be. She planned to imprison Cruella’s friends and kill Cruella in a fire—and she thought she had done it! But, the next day, covered in Ash, Estella woke up in the home of the Baroness’s Butler, John. He had pulled Estella from the fire that was meant to kill her and offered her some answers about her identity.
Estella was the daughter of the Baroness.
I perked up in my seat as the plot began to twist—Cruella was adopted! But how? It turns out, the Baroness wanted nothing to do with her husband or his child that she discovered she was carrying. She kept her pregnancy a secret and planned to cover the fiasco up. When Estella was born, the Baroness immediately ordered John to take Estella away and get rid of her. Rather than fulfilling the Baroness’ gruesome request, John instead gave the infant to one of the Baroness’ maids—the kind woman who would end up raising Estella as her own.
The True Identity Crisis
A dumbfounded Estella returns to her favorite place in London: a fountain where she met Horace and Jasper on her first day as an orphan. She had just discovered that her mother was not the woman she thought she was, her birth mother was a psycho who killed her adoptive mother, the Baroness attempted to have Estella killed twice, and, perhaps, Cruella, Estella’s dark side, comes from her birth mother. It all made sense–the darkness–the genius. She was who she was because she was the Baroness’ daughter.
“Born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad. I’m not like her … I’m better” – Cruella
Talk about an identity crisis! Most adoptees do not come from such… dramatically theatrical beginnings, but we do have roots in some harsh realities. Those roots can definitely cause us to question who we are, why we are the way we are, and who we will become. When we start to consider nurture and nature as Estella did, we might start to compare the two with our own perspective. Estella’s mothers couldn’t have been more different, but she felt the effects of both in her values. Her dark side was fueled by a fiery passion, but her humanity kept her grounded (to an extent) and kept her from making the same illegal choices as her birth mother. So, what does this mean for Estella?
She’s done with revenge. It is time for justice. Estella plots to get justice for her mother’s death, beat the Baroness at her own game, and claim the fortune her birth father left behind for her. I can’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but I can tell you that Estella’s final moments with the Baroness brought to light some important truths about adoption:
- Your true family has your back.
Although she had become demanding and ungrateful toward Jasper and Horace as Cruella, at the end of the day she reminded them “You’re my family.” They didn’t let her down. Sometimes it is our non-biological family that proves to have our backs when we hit the lowest lows. Adoptees sometimes feel lost in wondering who their true family is. Thankfully, adoption communities can be a place where connections can be made with others who have similar life experiences. For Cruella, Jasper, and Horace, their shared childhood traumas of losing parents bonded them. This bond proved to go unbroken even when it was strained.
- You can’t choose where you come from, but you can choose where you go.
Estella has every excuse to toss her humanity aside and embrace Cruella and all the darkness she was capable of inflicting on others. She could have become vengeful to the point of murder. She could have destroyed her oppressors. She could have thrown all of her passion out the window and become a recluse. But she didn’t. Estella learns how to accept her past and create a more positive future for herself. Adoptees off-screen can learn from Estella in the way they process their adoption stories. Negative circumstances surrounding your adoption story can be discouraging. Use your story to discover personal truths and chase the good that comes of them.
- “You’re… something”—The Baroness
She might’ve delivered this line with a condescending tone, but the Baroness was not wrong. Estella was something. Addressing Estella later on, the Baroness even admits, “I let something extraordinary go.” We may not have the knack for sewing or the eye for design that Estella does, but we are extraordinary. We are something. Like Estella, we can surpass our potential and do it through any obstacle we may face. Whether it is pursuing a talent, learning to live with mental health challenges, healing from trauma, or just finding the will to push ourselves every day, we have something in us that makes us fighters.
I didn’t expect Cruella to inspire me as an adoptee, but it did! Beyond the drama and extremes, I walked out of the theater with an appreciation for yet another villain-turned-hero movie. Isn’t that why we share our stories? So we can understand one another’s perspectives just a little bit better? You definitely won’t see me sporting any dalmatian-print coats this fall, but you just might hear me humming “Cruella Deville” this summer. With that, we welcome yet another Disney character into our adoption community.