PLOT: Fashion genius Estella “CRUELLA” de Vil (Emma Stone) embarks on a quest of lavishly-dressed revenge against the evil Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) in an origin story of the infamous Disney baddie.
REVIEW: Following in the footsteps of Disney’s other villainess origin story, Maleficent, Cruella is lucky that even though it’s a product of a studio attempting to remake/retool its entire library of classic characters, it doesn’t need to be beholden to specifics that hinder its other live-action cousins (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc.). With that added freedom, director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) explores this origin story with a bit of madness, attitude and a bit of off-kilter humor, making it bolder than any straight Disney movie has any right to be. But for every bold move and breath of fresh air, there are the elements that feel straight from the House of Mouse’s blockbuster factory, devaluing what could’ve been a sensational, resplendent creation with business-as-usual design.
With a script from Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), Gillespie continues the fourth-wall-breaking style of I, Tonya (itself inspired by the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf Of Wall Street) with narration from pre-“Cruella” Estella (Emma Stone) taking us through her life. Born a unique child with a mop of half-black/half-white hair, Estella proudly walked the halls of her snobbish prep school with daring fashion designs, having no trouble taking on local bullies. After the tragedy of losing her mother, she pals up with two other kids – Jasper and Horace – to live the life on the streets as a much more Dickensian orphan-thief, growing into a master sneak who uses her gift of supreme costume design to aid their thievery.
While the original Cruella de Vil from the animated “101 Dalmatians” and its 1996 live-action remake (starring an iconic Glenn Close in the role), have her as the eccentric baddie with a puppy-murder agenda, it becomes clear early on – even if it means conflicting with itself later – that era of Cruella is not this Cruella. Here, she couldn’t possibly be a dog murderer in training, because she pals around with her own dog companion, and adds one more in a one-eyed Chihuahua after teaming with Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). From the get-go, the movie’s aim is not to portray de Vil’s arc as the birth of a villain a la Maleficent and even Warner Bros’ Joker, but rather as a gifted fashion designer and rebellious figure worth rooting for, and who must go up against a true evil in Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a sociopathic fashion mogul.
The conflict meant to make Estella’s character arc interesting is in how, ever since she was a child, her rebellious, wild nature has been suppressed by those around her, including her mother (who says, “You’re ‘EStella’, not ‘CRUella.’” Get it??). As a result, we’re always hearing via her narration that Estella tries to keep her life on the straight and narrow, even when given a chance to work with Hellman. The Devil Wears Prada comparisons are hard to avoid, with Thompson’s Hellman being the Meryl Streep character, albeit with far less complexity and far more straight villainy. But while there is something fascinating about exploring how a woman being inhibited by the confines of social convention breaks out by embracing her inner radical to take on the establishment, thus forming a fantastical alter ego that could teeter on being an anti-hero, I feel I must reiterate, this is not that movie. Being that movie would be far too radical for the people handing out the funds.
Instead, Cruella’s plotting and character development are devolved into a hot mess by giving the characters and audiences the easy answers, clearly painting Cruella a hero and Hellman the villain by revealing that the latter was directly involved in the death of Estella’s mother (though that shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone over 15 years old paying attention). This kicks into drive a revenge story meshed with a heist angle, with Estella’s transformation and embrace of “Cruella” in full swing. Stone gets to shine even brighter by digging into the enrapturing, mad Cruella, relishing every line delivery as if the decadent clothes were speaking through her.
While the moviegoer in me loves watching Stone embrace such an eccentric persona, how it all factors into the story feels far less daring than the character herself. Estella embracing her alter ego feels less like an act of defiance born out of intricate character work, but rather as a means for blunt revenge –making her a sort of superhero. By day she’s Estella, working from the inside to sabotage Hellman’s fashion house, and by night, in her hideout, she’s caked in face makeup and dawning her natural, iconic hairdo, scheming and designing clothes to make Hellman irrelevant. The latter aspect is far more entertaining than the former, with Jenny Beavan and Tom Davies’ costume work never failing to dazzle. Estella’s designs throw a punk-rock spin on the upper-class elegance of Baroness’ gowns, as Gillespie uses the playground of 1970s London as the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the clash of new and old ideas.
By contrast, the scenes with Cruella make the scenes with Estella working for Hellman seem rote and unnecessary, with the angle of “destroy from within” feeling pointless, as Cruella is doing a fine enough job taking attention away from Hellman with her invigorating, creative showmanship. There’s simply far too much story crammed into a double-take-worthy 136-minute runtime, with a massive ensemble padding it out. Jasper and Horace (Hauser doing a slobbish English accent he seemed to concoct in the parking lot moments before stepping onto the set), make up Cruella’s main team, while fantastic actors like Mark Strong, Naomi Ackie and Kayvan Novak are given criminally little to do except be there to react to things. Fry’s Jasper gets the most to do, being the only one to really notice the folly of Estella morphing into this sometimes-meaner Cruella, whose meanest acts seem to be calling her mates some iteration of “stupid”. But, as with virtually every chance to do something narratively that evolves and capitalizes on inter-character conflict, this angle is dropped and means little by the end, with no consequences whatsoever.
Trailers have marketed this movie as a chance for audiences to “Meet the Queen of Mean,” but this Cruella is more the “Sultana of Snark”. In fact, any moral ambiguity to come from Cruella can never stick, because given how despicable Baroness Hellman is, there’s no reason to view Cruella as doing anything but good. There isn’t even cause to call her an anti-hero, because there’s not much about her that can even be considered bad or even shady. Rebellious and bold? Absolutely. But there’s no denying she’s the hero of this story — using her creativity to destroy a true monster’s life. There’s not even a moment to give Baroness a bit of humanity, a glimpse into what made her who she is. She’s pure villainy through and through, which can only make Cruella’s actions seem all the more heroic.
If there’s anything about the movie that makes all that worthwhile though is in how there’s enough dressing on the muddled mess of a story to make it all worth fawning over. Not only is Stone a knockout, but any scenes with the dryly, hilariously horrible Thompson as Baroness is time well spent. Like Stone, she chews on her lines with lavish narcissism, living up to the definition “love to hate” with extreme aplomb. And doing so while decked out in sensational costumes – and with a soundtrack featuring some of the most iconic music of the era in the background – it’s difficult to not go through the movie’s most exhausting moments without something to revel in.
With McNamara on the script, that dry sense of humor seen in his The Favourite and The Great makes Cruella among the funniest of Disney’s recent live-action catalog. That biting bit of black comedy, mixed with Gillespie’s more grounded, sometimes darker approach to the storytelling means that for all its flaws, Cruella moves and feels unlike anything tied to the studio. The crew is not trying to make a movie that lets parents take their kids to the movies to go “I know those characters too! See, now we have something in common!” It’s certainly more in line for adults, with references, music, tonal choices and a sense of humor that could leave older audiences entertained and kids waiting for the next scene with a dog.
And yet, the tested Disney formula is all over Cruella’s DNA when it comes to a lot of what matters. The final act sees Cruella assembling her team with one last chance to take down the baddie, and even ends with a dialogue exchange that hints “Yup, there’s room for more.” For a lot that defies convention in the approach, just as much secures the movie as something that can sell toys and Halloween costumes. Estella is gone, and Cruella reigns supreme, but how she got there is of little reward beyond the surface-level showmanship, which is admittedly so eye-popping it just enough makes up for the cheap material underneath.