Stylish, calculating and beautiful with a pair of perfectly-pitched performances from its two leads, Cruella is an apt reflection of the life its heroine (Emma Stone) wants to lead but may be a decade too late in getting there.
A prequel humanizing a villain from a 50-year-old film who literally has ‘devil’ as part of her name seems like it should go up in flames faster than one of Cruella’s capes, but Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) and team actually succeed better than anyone has any right to.
Set among the hustle and bustle of the ’60s and ’70s London fashion scene, Gillespie’s film is not only lovely to look at but surprisingly delicate about its characters and their interlocking motivations without skimping on the kid-friendly pratfalls. There’s something for (almost) everyone in it, and probably no one who will want to see it.
The re-creation starts almost from the beginning with the birth of young Estella, whose viscious dark-side earns her the nickname “Cruella.” Estella suppresses that side for years after the death of her mother, getting by as part of a band of underage thieves, but she never losing sight of her true love… fashion.
When she gets the chance to work for the most revered designer in the fashion world (Emma Thompson), it seems like all the hardship and want will have been worth it. But when she discovers the Baroness’ connection to her tragic childhood, Estella puts away her dreams and lets “Cruella” out again.
On the surface, Cruella feels like one of the standard origin films we’ve gotten so many of over the last 20 years: heroine suffers childhood trauma, grows up defined by that trauma but fighting to overcome it, creates costumed alter-ego to confront the difficulties of the world while protecting her own sense of self, confronts the originator of her pain and must decide who she really is in the process – her alter-ego or the woman under the mask.
Twist just a few details and Cruella could be Batman or someone similar and that is very much by design. The story beats have become iconic by now, which is another way to say rote and easy to pattern which can be death to a story. It’s the care towards the little things that keeps that from happening.
Some of that is the recreation of swinging London with just the right mix of historical accuracy and Wes Anderson fantasy, creating the modern fairy tale vibe a Disney film needs. More than that, though, is the focus on the characters themselves from the small but logical explanations of Cruella’s absurd name to her hatred of dalmatians and even her friendship with Anita Darling.
More importantly, no one is left to just be set dressing as even classical ruffians Jasper and Horace are made not only indispensable to the plot but well defined with the film taking genuine time to examine their reactions to their old friend falling deeper and deeper into her new persona.
In the middle of it all sit the two Emmas. Thompson delves into slinky narcissism in a way she’s never been allowed to on film before and steals the spotlight of every scene, just the way the Baroness would want it. Stone spends most of the film trying to match her and mostly succeeds particularly as Cruella becomes more and more like the Baroness.
Whenever the two are on screen all of the glitz and glam and tricks fade away to make room for real fireworks. It’s stagey and the scenery chewing is rampant, but that’s also exactly what it should be.
It’s particularly amazing given a film with five credited writers (mostly from various romantic comedy backgrounds). It’s impossible to tell how much of which parts are due to What Happens in Vegas‘ Dana Fox and how much to The Favourite‘s Tony McNamara, but the Baroness sequences in particular scream out with the droll venom that made The Favourite and The Great so fun – it’s impossible to see the whole thing working without them.
The downside is it’s hard to tell who this is for beyond a certain subset of hardcore 101 Dalmatians fans. It’s too adult for children to get invested in but not a brand that pulls in adult audiences (in an era where adults don’t really go to theaters anyway).
It’s too bad, because there is a lot to enjoy here. As much as Cruella plays with a lot of the tropes of the modern IP exploitations, two world class performances and a lot of care more than set it apart from its brethren. Hopefully it will find the appreciate it deserves.
CRUELLA REVIEW SCORE: 8/10
The Walt Disney Studios’ Cruella will open in theaters and be available on Disney+ with Premier Access on Friday, May 28. The film also stars Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong.