How Disney is selling a villain’s origin story.
Giving cinematic antagonists a feature-length backstory that makes their later actions if not reasonable at least understandable has been a trend in Hollywood for a decade or more now. Disney, which has been down this road before with movies like the two Maleficent entries, is back with another with this week’s Cruella.
Emma Stone stars as Estella, an aspiring fashion designer in the punk London of the 1970’s, whose dreams never seem to come true. When she finally manages to land a position with the powerful Baroness (Emma Thompson), Estella’s talent becomes apparent as does her penchant for mayhem and cruelty. Eventually she succumbs fully to that side of her personality and becomes Cruella de Vil.
After a campaign that has run in the relatively concise period starting earlier this year the movie arrives this week both in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
When the first poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out in February it immediately established not only Stone’s appearance as the title character but also the overall look and feel of the film. Specifically, a look and feel rooted in the design aesthetics of the 70s punk scene, with its title treatment that seems to be written in lipstick and more.
A similar set of messages is conveyed on the second poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) released just a few days later.
The next one-sheet from early April pulls the camera out to show more of a full-body shot of Cruella.
In early May a series of character posters came out with Cruella and Baroness along with Cruella’s henchman Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and her childhood friend turned journalistic nemesis Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).
Another set that adds Jasper (Joel Fry), Cruella’s other assistant, to the mix came out a bit later in May.
The Dolby Cinemas poster looks exactly like the cover to a punk album, with Cruella, Horace and Jasper standing against a white brick wall, a dalmatian blurred in front of them as it runs past the camera. The Regal Cinemas poster has Cruella hovering the background as the other characters are arranged in front of her along with her signature town car.
It’s clear from the first trailer (13 million views on YouTube), released in mid-February, that we will be watching an origin story of a villain. That’s communicated through the handful of narrated lines about how she was “destined to be a psycho” and such, all of which sets up a twisted personality. Thankfully there’s no reason for that shown here, it just is what it is. Also unclear is what Cruella is acting out toward specifically in the story, as we just see scenes of general mayhem and craziness, not a unified goal or target. That’s fine since really it’s Stone’s performance that’s the main draw as she wears outlandish wigs and dresses and chews all available scenery.
A final trailer (6.2 million views on YouTube) came out in early April that continues selling it as a villain origin story, but one where Estella’s transformation is in large part triggered by the workplace abuse she suffers at the hands of Baroness von Hellman. It’s actually a lot more interesting for the backstory that’s offered as well as because more Thompson is always a good thing.
Online and Social
No website but there were social pages like this Twitter profile where updates were shared.
Advertising, Press and Publicity
The first big coming out party for the movie was at Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August of last year. Costumes from the film were on display and the first still showing Stone in character was released.
More stills offering additional looks at Cruella and The Baroness came out in late February following the release of the trailer.
A new “sneak peek” video was released in mid-March during the Grammy Awards ceremony showing the indignities Cruella suffers on her way up as well as how she makes her own opportunities along the way to her eventual fate.
Unsurprisingly, Disney announced in March that the movie would receive a simultaneous theatrical and Disney+ Premier Access release.
It’s notable that one of the first big interviews with director Craig Gillespie came in British Vogue given the campaign’s focus on fashion and lewks.
TV spots like this began to come out toward the end of April, some focusing on the story’s fashion industry setting, others on how Cruella grew into the villain she would eventually become.
The first clip, also released at the end of April, shares the moment when Cruella comes into her own by making a big entrance at a party hosted by her boss.
A short featurette that came out around the same time has Stone talking about taking on the character and more.
Additional spots and promos in the weeks leading up to release include a “Meet the Villain” extended look at Cruella’s hijinks, a “Call Me Cruella” promo that focuses on the rivalry between her and The Baroness, a clip of The Baroness’ chilling entry, a commercial showing the event audiences can expect in theaters or online, another clip showing Cruella commandeering what would become her signature car, a featurette on the fashion of the characters, a commercial showing Cruella making plans for her big coming out and the music.
In mid-May the movie became one of the first major releases to hold an actual red carpet premiere event in Los Angeles, a sign that nature was indeed healing. Stone, Howell-Baptiste, Gillespie and others were in attendance while costumes and other props were on display for attendees to check out.
Just days before the movie came out Disney released Florence Welch’s “Call Me Cruella” from the film’s soundtrack, which also included a number of songs appropriate to the era and setting of the story.
Online ads used various incarnations of the key art to send clicks to the Disney+ sign-up/sign-in page.
Stone talked more about taking on such a well-known character when she appeared on “GMA.” She and Thompson both talked here about the looks of their respective characters while Glenn Close, who of course previously played Cruella on-screen and was a producer on this movie, shared her ideas for a sequel.
Promotional partners for the movie include:
- MAC Cosmetics, which created a line of movie-themed cosmetics and beauty products as well as providing tips on how to recreate the movie’s looks using those products.
- Obe Fitness, which is offering a series of Cruella-themed cardio classes over this coming weekend.
- oVertone, which created a movie-themed collection of hair coloring and care products.
It’s an interesting choice made by Disney to sell this as a glam fashion period piece in addition to a villain origin story. Everything about the campaign, from the interviews in Vogue to the featurettes on the costumes to the posters that go big on the hair and feather-strewn dresses, conveys a black and white fierceness to the audience.
While you can take issue with how accurate those attempts are to the era portrayed, it certainly works to create a strong visual identity for the movie. Everything is black and white and red all over, lipstick scrawled on a photo and dangerous attitudes conveyed through determined looks.