Disney’s Cruella is a delightfully twisted and campy origin story that proves to be the perfect showcase for its stars, Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. Perhaps a tad darker than we’re used to from Disney (there are some truly distressing moments), this look at how Cruella—Ms. De Vil, if you’re nasty—came to be the wicked wonder we know provides more than enough pomp, puppies, and panache to keep things interesting, if not riveting.
The film, largely set amid the glam and punk rock revolution of 1970s, follows rebellious young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as she attempts to live her dream and break into the notoriously insular world of high fashion. With little in the way of family or possessions, her mischievous and creative nature endears her to two young grifters and together they forge a merry band of thieves eking out a living on the crowded streets of Swinging London. The years go by and Estella (now Emma Stone) gets her big break–a position at Liberty, the city’s most luxurious and high-end department store. Though she starts there as a cleaner, her flair for fashion with a side of chaos and drama catches the discerning eye of the biggest name in the business—Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an iconic designer at the top of her game. The Baroness is both fabulously fashionable and ruthless to the core. Imperious in every aspect of her life, she treats her staff like indentured servants and spitefully takes credit for all of their ideas and hard work. Though briefly a kind of mentor to Estella, their relationship takes a turn and Estella embraces her wicked side, Cruella, in order to upstage and take down the real villain of the piece—The Baroness.
Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) brings us a different kind of Cruella here. While she may have the same flair for the wicked and dramatic as her animated and live-action predecessors, this Cruella is softer around the edges and far more interested in achieving her dream of having her genius recognised by the world than on destroying dogs for dresses. The writers—of which there are five—spend a great deal of the film’s overlong 134-minute runtime ensuring our anti-hero’s motivations are empathetic, including her dislike of those spotty Dalmatians, with varying degrees of success. What they do achieve by the time the credits roll, is a three-dimensional, layered version of the Cruella we’ve always loved to hate. Only now we might just love her a little more and hate her a little less.
Stone does an admirable job of balancing the two very different sides of Estella and Cruella, gleefully hamming and vamping it up when necessary while always ensuring the character remains grounded enough for us to care. That said, the film belongs to Thompson—an actress who can make an elaborate lunch order sound like a Shakespearean soliloquy. Her Baroness is deliciously, dastardly evil and it’s clear that Thompson is delighting in every delivery (“Gorgeous and vicious—that’s my favourite combination”) and milking every menacing gaze. She has set a new, incredibly high bar for all future Disney villains.
The focus on Cruella and The Baroness leaves the supporting cast, though filled with incredible talent, with very little to do. The always brilliant Mark Strong plays a pivotal role that amounts to little more than a cameo, while Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste (as Jasper, Horace, and Anita, respectively) make the most of the time they are given. Jon McCrea does a great job in his few scenes as Artie, a full-on Glam Portobello Road vintage merchant who just happens to be Disney’s first openly gay, live-action character; a great step forward in the grand scheme of things, but less impressive when you realize Artie is not quite a three-dimensional person and more of a convenient and stereotypical plot device.
Despite the secondary cast woes, Cruella does have its pluses. Aside from the great duo of Stone and Thompson, there’s the look and feel of the entire film. From Jenny Beavan’s stunning costumes to Fiona Crombie’s intricate sets, it’s a master class of storytelling through detail and design. It’s an aesthetic, indulgent feast for the eyes and there’s so much there to appreciate it’s hard to know where to start. And we won’t, since describing almost anything would involve giving away some of the film’s biggest moments.
Speaking of indulgence, director Gillespie drops a hefty number of well-known pop songs into scene after scene, often relying on them for heavy lifting, exposition-wise. While feeling grating at first, the frequency and volume of the tracks from The Doors, Nancy Sinatra, The Clash, Nina Simone, and Blondie begin to suit as the film hurtles toward its more climactic and dramatic moments.
But never mind the music, where would any Cruella film be without the dogs? While there aren’t 101 of them, there are five and all are crucial to the plot. There’s The Baroness’s three Dalmatians (think of that what you will), Estella’s lovable mutt, Buddy, and pickpocket-turned-henchman Horace’s one-eyed chihuahua, Wink. Though all serve their purpose and keep their coats, it’s Wink who steals the show. You wonder how even the most notorious of villains could ever develop a dislike of dogs with that chihuahua around.
Cruella may feel like a brand new chapter in the Dalmatian-verse, but the film gives us a host of easter eggs and homages to the past. From a brief appearance by a hapless, wanna-be musician named Roger, to the famous Panther De Ville car, to a nod to the famous 1961 scene where Pongo muses about the similarities between pups and their owners—there’s plenty for long-time fans to lap up.
The bottom line: While Cruella may not be ground-breaking cinema, it’s a whole lot of chaotic fun. Gillespie and his team have delivered audiences a suitably wicked and well-acted backstory for one of Disney’s greatest villains.