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Teaching Disney's Cruella: An Identity Study

July 22, 2021 | 1 comment

Teaching Disney's Cruella: An Identity Study

Then IT happened. “IT” happens occasionally, and once it does, the movie changes for me. IT is that moment when I lean over to one of my kiddos and say, “I’m going to teach this.”


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By Amber Chandler

Interweaving the Academic, Social and Emotional with High-Interest Pop Culture

I’m a big fan of origin stories, prequels and stories that shift perspective, like Wicked, Maleficent and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. When I saw the trailer for Cruella, I was intrigued by the snippet of Emma Stone’s raspy, “I was born brilliant. Born bad. And a little bit mad.” I love this type of movie, and I could tell from the previews that there would be an excellent character arc, which is what really pulls me in. The Chandlers were ready to return to one of our favorite places, the movies, but I was a little nervous with this choice. My husband and I have seen hundreds of movies together, and he can be a tough critic, but he does share my love for Emma Stone, so I felt a bit better. My 13-year-old son Oliver is interested in cinematography and “movie magic” over storyline, but I wasn’t sure he’d want to sit through two hours and 14 minutes, after the previews. Zoey, my 16-year-old, was the least of my worries because she takes a blanket with her to the movies and simply takes a nap if she isn’t interested. If you haven’t guessed, I was the most excited.

Then the movie started. Every Chandler was mesmerized within the first three minutes. It’s that good. The storyline is familiar, but reimagined and fresh. The music is amazingly appropriate to each scene, and I found myself comparing the situation on the screen to the lyrics. For example, when Estella lands her dream job, Nina Simone’s sweet “It’s a new life, a new dawn, a new life for me” from “Feeling Good,” was flawlessly interwoven. The fashion and sets made me wish I had been born earlier. Then IT happened.

IT” happens occasionally, and once it does, the movie changes for me. IT is that moment when I lean over to one of my kiddos and say, “I’m going to teach this.” I immediately want to pull out a pen and start jotting things down, but I force myself to enjoy the experience, knowing that I will purchase the movie and watch it another half a dozen times before I share it with my students. IT has happened to me many times, most notably when I watched Zootopia. This IT moment felt the same way: There’s so much I need to talk with my students about!

First, let me clear up a few things. Most importantly, the weird dog-fur-coat thing from 101 Dalmatians (which is, incidentally, super scary) is not a part of this movie. Within the first five minutes, we learn that Estella/Cruella finds a dog in the dumpster that she names Buddy, and he is her shadow for the rest of the movie. Another dog, Wink, is introduced, and he is another member of the friends-who-become-family of this story. The Dalmatians do have their role, but they are never seriously considered for fur coats, though Cruella lets her arch enemy think so. Second, there is nothing that seriously suggests Cruella is the devil him/herself as I’d heard someone mention. Instead, there is some word play around De Vil (a getaway car) and devil, with Horace pointing out that it may be spelled “devil,” but it is pronounced “De Vil.” “Hellman Hall,” the baroness’ mansion, becomes Hell Hall, but that is one of many brilliant homages to the previous movies and book. There’s a whole bunch of references/allusions/Easter eggs that you can read about in the “Cruella Pre-Thinking Guide.” Students love these kinds of connections, so I will share those before diving into the movie itself.

Cruella: Teaching an Identity Story

The approach I’m taking to teach this movie is to frame it as an identity story. Yes, it is an origin story of sorts, a prequel with a whole lot of creative license, and a shift-in-perspective piece as well. It is now told from Estella/Cruella’s perspective with a human protagonist, instead of animal protagonists from the original book. Despite these compelling classifications, I could not let this opportunity pass without utilizing this movie to get my students talking about all kinds of important things that lead to social and emotional learning around the idea of identity. The main questions can be found in the “Cruella Rotating Chair,” which is a student-led discussion that will take place after watching the movie. These types of questions help students with “self-awareness,” while also developing “social awareness” and building class community and “relationship skills” (all a part of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s SEL competencies), and all a part of their own identification and development of their own identity. 

I found myself whacking my daughter when Arty (who introduces himself as “Art. As in, work of”) describes the abuse he takes for his chosen self-expression via his clothes. Estella asks, “How does that play on the street?” referring to his red velvet, makeup and bold attire. He replies, “some abuse and insults, but I like to say that ‘normal’ is the cruelest insult of all, and at least I never get that,” to which Estella replies, “I couldn’t agree more.” In our current climate, I am excited to make a safe space for my students to express themselves in whatever way they feel best. Though clothes and costumes are at the center of this story, there are other interesting paths to follow as well.

Questions of nature vs. nurture, what makes a family, how socioeconomic status impacts people, and identity are abundant. The movie is long, and I know that this mini-unit will take about two weeks. Here is how I plan to approach this, with 40-minute classes:

  • Days 1 and 2: “Cruella Pre-Viewing Sheet”
  • Days 3, 4, 5, 6: Watching Cruella with stop/start (focus on SEL)
  • Days 7 and 8: Cruella Rotating Chair student-led discussion
  • Days 9 and 10: Teacher-led debrief from notes I’ll take throughout, with a focus on the literary terms we can address (allusion, characterization, plot structure, theme, etc.), all leading to a slideshow students will create with five pieces of media that are their “playlist.”

While this may seem like a long time to spend on a movie, that would be missing the point. I’m double-dipping, even triple-dipping. I will be teaching using ELA Standards of Speaking and Listening, in addition to reviewing literary elements. I will be getting to know my students through our discussion, as well as laying the groundwork for our future work together in restorative circles. The “playlist” activity is something that students will create using Google Slides, and each entry of their playlist has an accompanying paragraph. This interweaving of the academic, social and emotional with high-interest pop culture is a methodology I plan to utilize throughout the year as we all emerge from the alienation, isolation and trauma of the pandemic. This, I believe, is the best way to teach, and from my experience, perhaps it always has been.

Note: This Cruella mini-unit is from the second edition of “The Flexible SEL Classroom,” coming in spring 2022 from Routledge Eye On Education. The updated edition has post-pandemic principles for each of the CASEL competencies, as well as new content. The second edition has new chapters on Restorative Circles and Resilience, as well as additional resources for post-pandemic SEL activities. Follow @MsAmberChandler  for updates!

Amber Chandler
Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader... See More

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jillian.marwick_4047489 September 1, 2021, 5:50 am

Thanks for these great ideas and the fab resources you have prepared in this mini-unit Amber. I'm currently using them with a class in Scotland.