Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Kayvan Novak, Tom Turner, and Abraham Popoola.
A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil.
Cruella is a bonkers fascinating experiment from live-action Disney and indeed the darkest thing they have done in modern times. There is also the sense that I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie understood the assignment and that he is here to bring that propulsive momentum through madcap energy style to this origin story for one of their most evil characters. Wisely (a prequel to Dodie Smith’s classic novel One Hundred and One Dalmatians), a balance is struck between humanizing the eponymous conflicted and traumatized aspiring fashion designer that would inevitably embrace the darker, more tortured aspects of her life and presenting her without restraint. Yes, sympathy for Cruella is felt, but it’s also made clear that this is not an alternate universe where her characterization is twisted. In other words, this is not something to compare to the Angelina Jolie interpretation of Maleficent, where it’s made clear that we are witnessing the truth.
Nevertheless, there is voiceover narration from Emma Stone’s Cruella, born Estella and struggling with light and dark, kindness and cruelty, smarts and troublemaking, and black-and-white since birth to her lower-class mother Catherine (Emily Beecham). Criticizing her mother’s design sensibilities as a child, getting into fights with schoolyard bullies and protecting childhood friend Anita, and carrying herself with little regard for societal structures and norms (she believes the label of normal is an insult), it doesn’t come as a shock when Estella is expelled from her middle school. Mother and daughter decide to start anew, but not before Catherine pays a visit to both an old friend and former life, one that saw her working as a Hellman Hall maid for the glamorous, narcissistic Baroness (Emma Thompson, also not afraid to get crazy).
Told to remain in the car, Estella impulsively stops outside and wanders inside the Winter Ball with her puppy Buddy in tow. While showing off a glimpse of the vibrantly colorful and stunning costume design from Nicolas Karakatsanis (it already feels like a foregone conclusion that the film will be nominated and win plenty of awards for that category), the dog gets away, and a messy situation develops. The three Dalmatian security guards are called into action. Without spoiling the details, the hectic scene escalates into the black-spotted canines, accidentally knocking Catherine off a ledge to her death, effectively rendering the promising young genius an orphan.
Running away to a nearby park until morning, it’s there where Estella befriends similarly aged pickpocketing thieves Jasper and Horace, the infamous henchman duo that goes on to do the dirty work for Cruella de Vil. Flash forward to the 1970s (and man, the film hammers home the decade utilizing music from The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Deep Purple, and more, including some anachronistic choices, all to varying success as while the songs and soundtrack itself are filled with great options they can also feel too on the nose and needle-dropped so frequently that it comes across as masking some weaker aspects of Dana Fox’s and Tony McNamara’s otherwise alive and campy script). The trio is now their own family with enough camaraderie and support for one another to make a living as small-scale career criminals.
However, Jasper and Horace (now played by Joel Fry and Craig Gillespie’s secret comedic weapon Paul Walter Hauser) realize that Estella is destined for more extraordinary things. As such, they decide to put their thievery to good use, stealing an application of sorts to get Estella working inside a fashion store and on the correct path to fulfilling her childhood dreams. Greatness comes from small beginnings, as, unfortunately, the job is cleaning toilets. Still, it’s not long before Estella finds a way to impress the visiting Baroness by some unintentionally fortuitous and unorthodox ways. Of course, now being 15-20 years older and rocking red hair, the Baroness does not recognize Estella and vice versa and is willing to take her under her wing even if she detests the idea that someone could match or be superior to her.
Already wrestling to keep the inner monster inside of her, the lack of respect and gratitude prompts Estella to give into Horace’s and Jasper’s pressure of robbing the building. Fittingly, the production design also incorporates similar white and black patterns, as if every time Estella heads to work, she’s going to be reminded of what both she and the Dalmatians caused. There is also a beautifully grandiose setting ablaze of a white dress revealing a red one underneath, seemingly signifying the shift in morality. Heavy on plot, this is also where Cruella eases up by transitioning into a hybrid of heist planning (with help from adorable doggy companions), constant one-upmanship (Estella embraces the Cruella persona with publicity help from Anita, now played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. to steal the Baroness’ thunder at her shows, typically sporting over-the-top dazzling dresses with the assistance of John McCrea’s punk rock dressmaker Artie), Dalmatian kidnapping (although not for murder, at least in this movie), and ultimately, revenge.
Again, Craig Gillespie is aware that all of this is ridiculous and unbelievable, so he keeps up a livewire tone with style and both Nicholas Britell’s emphatic score and an overload of licensed music (Cruella and the gang even put on their own punk rock concert) to infectious results. There is an excellent 40-minute stretch focusing on this rivalry with amusing intensity, but just when it begins to feel repetitive, the filmmakers know to switch gears back to something more character-driven (although the writing could be better and there is a reliance on clunky exposition). In between all of that, it’s evident that the Cruella side is beginning to take over a bit too much, resorting to insulting Jasper and Horace as what was once a tight-knit family devolves into snide bossery. It also leaves Joel Fry’s Horace (the more intelligent of the pairing) one or two serious dialogue exchanges about her shifting character. In contrast, Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace pretty much generates laughs from anything he’s asked to do.
As the bad blood intensifies, Cruella dares to go to some unexpected places pushing the PG-13 rating to its limit. There’s a line of dialogue in the movie that is so horrific due to what is ordered. I almost thought I heard it wrong until it was confirmed again a few moments later. Even when Cruella perhaps goes a step too far, it’s easy to remain on her side, knowing other characters have done worse. The knowledge that she’s eventually going to want to start skinning Dalmatians and wearing them as fur coats uncomfortably remains in the back of the mind. Still, the steppingstones to becoming a cold and heartless person here are diabolically likable.
The whole ensemble is solid, but Emma Stone is especially tuned into the demented and zany wavelength of the story, also capable of expressing heavier emotions such as guilt and inner conflict. Sporting nerdy glasses, patience, and sweetness as Estella balanced with the unhinged Cruella, and it’s also two savory performances in one. Cruella is an eclectically mischievous rollercoaster, at once an extravagant blockbuster and worthwhile character study. It’s tricky to say where things go from here or if they even should continue, but Disney has nonetheless done something bold and exciting by going back to the well with their classic stories and characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com