Cruella Review

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By “re-imagining” their animated classics as live-action films, Disney has churned out a string of blockbusters. So perhaps it was inevitable that the iconic villainess of 1961’s One Hundred And One Dalmatians would get her due…again. 21 years after Glenn Close headlined two live-action adventures as the cackling fashionista Cruella de Vil, Emma Stone slips into a two-tone wig and a devilish grin for the inventive origin story Cruella.  

Not a prequel but rather a Wicked-style retelling, Cruella forges a new path that begins in 1964. There, a snarling school girl named Estella battles back against bullies and earns a permanent record full of black marks. (Like Dalmatian spots!) However, neither schoolyard brats nor a horrific tragedy that pitches her into a hard-knock life on the streets of London will get in the way of her big dreams to become a major fashion designer.  

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Smash-cut to 10 years later, where Estella (Emma Stone) crafts stitch-perfect disguises for her thieving crew. Through pickpocketing and more elaborate heists, she, the clever Jasper (Joel Fry), the dopey Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and two scruffy pups, Buddy and one-eyed Wink, scrape by in an abandoned warehouse. That is until Estella’s genius for design — and troublemaking — catches the eye of London’s top designer, the ever-chic, ever-merciless Baroness (Emma Thompson). Working under this haute couture heiress seems like a dream job, but things swiftly turn dog-eat-dog when a horrid revelation comes to light. So, Estella embraces her dark side, creating an alter ego named Cruella, who audaciously crashes every Baroness event to steal the spotlight. Through the battle of these stylish titans, we are not only gifted the birth of Cruella, but also two deliciously thrilling Disney villainesses for the price of one. 

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Cruella not only pulls from 101 Dalmatians, but also borrows plot elements, themes, and its diva-licious attitude from films like All About Eve, The Favourite, and The Devil Wears Prada. And it comes by it honestly, as the screenplay was penned by five writers, including The Devil Wears Prada’s Aline Brosh McKenna and The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, who gives Stone another witty and shrewd schemer to sink her teeth into. However, this curious collision of influences reflects the war going on in this unusual Disney movie. 

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Cruella is a cheeky coming-of-age story about how a headstrong girl blossoms into a badass, one whose talent and genius will not be ignored. It is also a dark comedy about ambition, greed, corporate sabotage, revenge, class conflict, high fashion, and murder. Of course, much of the above are things that have been neatly folded into family-friendly movies before. (The Great Muppet Caper comes to mind.) Still, director Craig Gillespie struggles with how to create a balance that will enchant children and entertain adults. The result is a messy yet fascinating and tumultuously thrilling film.

The first challenge comes from a need to appeal to fans. Cruella includes her signature black-and-white hair, her reckless driving in chic cars, her bumbling crew, love for the insult “imbecile,” some callback jokes, and her classic cackle. All of this is folded in with ease, while some bits — including her desire for a Dalmatian coat — are re-imagined with razor-sharp wit. However, 101 Dalmatians’ big-hearted pet owners, Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak), are haphazardly wedged in, giving two talented TV actors very little to do beyond gawping at the dueling Emmas. But most groan-worthy is the scene where Cruella concocts her last name. We’re talking Solo: A Star Wars Story levels of exasperating. Not every detail needs to be doggedly explained! 

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Clocking in over two hours, the runtime will likely prove a challenge to kids and parents alike. The pacing would be smoother without the many, many, scenes where Estella explains what just happened to her cohorts or in excessive voiceover. Of course, this is done to make sure kids are keeping up with the plot. But how will a movie this long — which is often about pretty grown-up stuff — keep their attention anyhow? 

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The pandering to parents is just as bad, as evidenced by a comically long list of nostalgia-driven needle drops. Props to the soundtrack team for pulling together truly epic songs from Nina Simone, The Zombies, Deep Purple, The Clash, and The Rolling Stones. However, the editing team should have offered some restraint. The lyrics and song choices become so on-the-nose it’s hilariously predictable, like when a Cruella de Vil victory is celebrated by blasting “Sympathy for the Devil.” Nonetheless, the use of John McCrea’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is fantastic, hitting hard with a punk-rock fashion show performance that is edgy and astounding.

The fashion all around is an absolute marvel, because Disney smartly hired an actual genius designer. Even if you don’t know the name Jenny Beavan, you know her work. Over 43 years, she has created costumes for a string of period pieces and fantasy films, resulting in 10 Academy Award nominations. You might know her best for her Oscar-winning designs on Mad Max: Fury Road. Beavan has a brilliant mind that weaves together styles and textures to create characters, worlds, and story all with thoughtful fashion. In Cruella, she establishes Estella as a mirthful misfit from the moment the school girl Fresh Prince-s her blazer, wearing it inside out so the flashy liner shows. Despite car chases, spirited heists, and silly shenanigans, the greatest spectacle in Cruella comes in the sequences built around Beavan’s designs. Every time Cruella upstages The Baroness, a new look — and a new outrageous way to debut it — makes for enthralling fun, while making no mockery of fashion or apology for the ferocious women who wear it. That on its own feels like a gift, since “fashion” is so often sneered at as a frivolous thing. But we’re in a post-Miranda Priestly monologue world, so you better recognize that even those who aren’t interested in fashion are influenced by it. 

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Fashion is almost a character in Cruella, and her co-stars do not disappoint. Whether racing through back alleys, eye-rolling over idiots, or cracking a smile wide and blood-red, Emma Stone is living for this moment, and it shows. The quipping misfits of her teen movie years prove the perfect place to cut her teeth, allowing her to bite hard into withering one-liners and howls of rebellion. However, this is about the evolution from Estella to Cruella, so there are pockets where this grandiosity feels like a façade, as it should. Stone is playing a woman finding her inner diva. Emma Thompson’s Baroness is the fully formed villainess here, and she is a vision of viciousness and glamor. No need for cackles or shouts. The Baroness is an ice queen, who might make you cry, bleed, or worse. But she need not raise her voice to make your spine quiver. The script gives Thompson a wealth of punchlines. Yet because of her savage yet sophisticated delivery, the funniest one becomes a simple “Uh-huh.” The Baroness is very rich, yet has no flips to give. 

For their part, the supporting cast adds oomph. Hauser, who worked with Gillespie in I, Tonya, plays Horace with unexpected warmth, making him the perfect scene partner to a teeny pup with an eyepatch. John McCrea brings shade and flair as a vintage seller with an eye for opportunity. Jamie Demetriou leans hard into a caricature to establish what kind of fool would dare doubt Estella. Mark Strong gives steeliness in a small but pivotal role. Yet the standout in supporting goes to Joel Fry, who turns Jasper into much more than a lackey. With a twinkle in his eye and a sparkling tenderness, he hints there might be more between Cruella and her partner in crime. Yet, it’s never pushed to the point of subplot or distraction. Instead, this seeming intimacy gives a grander context to why he would put up with some of Cruella’s crueler antics. It also brings a little bit of spice.

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