Synopsis – A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil.
My Take – Personally, I have detested most of Disney‘s live action remakes. While I unlike most enjoyed Tim Burton‘s take on Alice in Wonderland (2010), I can’t say the same for its horrendous sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), or his take on Dumbo (2019).
My disdain for these cash grabs continued with needless films like Beauty and the Beast (2017), The Lion King (2019), Aladdin (2019), and Mulan (2020), though, I do not any share resentment towards The Jungle Book (2016), which at least tried to be different, and Maleficent (2014), a clever re-framing of the Sleeping Beauty story, which for a change turned the spotlight on the supposed titular classic Disney antagonist as more of a victim. Though I can’t say the same for its redundant sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019).
Hence one can understand my apprehension to expect anything when it was announced that Cruella de Vil, the memorable cigarette-smoking fur coat-obsessed villain of Disney’s 1961 animated film, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, who was memorably played by Glenn Close in the 1996 live action remake of the animated film and its 2000 sequel, would be getting an origin film with Emma Stone in the lead role.
Simply told, it sounded like that this Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, The Finest Hours) directed film had no good reason to exist, other than to sell some merchandise. That is until I saw the film and realized how much fun it was and not like any other Disney live-action film.
Sure, it has its set of problems, but the film is built around such an infectious energy that can’t help getting engaged in the visually gorgeous and fast-paced fashion adventure that leans into the darker circles of kids’ storytelling, setting the perfect mood for the dark and cynical title character. And while it also does not work as a prequel to its source material thanks to its many plot contrivances, it is a vivid and unique cinematic experience that makes you want to root for the two horrific people played deliciously by both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson.
The story follows Estella (Emma Stone), who since her young age (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) has been quite talented with a needle and thread, but struggled with her identity mainly due to her strictly parted down half black/half white hair. While her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) teaches her how to lay low, and to fend off teasing and bullies, as she has a bit of a wild side that she doesn’t have the best self-control over, but when tragedy ensues, she finds herself in the company of Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), two thieves, who use her good skill to carry out pickpockets and burglaries.
That is until she finds herself placed in the path of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the self-centered queen of the London fashion scene, who takes her under her wing and uses her talent for her own benefit. However, when Estella finds that her cruel, spiteful boss has a connection to her past, she adopts the moniker of Cruella, an inscrutable fashion terrorist whose mission is to upstage the Baroness whenever possible with bold designs and innovative looks, and puts herself directly in the cross hairs of renowned designer’s narcissistic tendencies of revenge.
With the plot working as a mix of both Charles Dickens‘s Oliver Twist story and The Devil Wears Prada (2006), this new offering of the old traditional story from Disney, definitely delves into a completely different outlook on this once cute story of a villain vs. adorable Dalmatian puppies. Though, this version is a bit darker than any previous interpretation, animated or live action, writers Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis manage to create a furious, and fabulous origin story for the dog napper, and it sure is fun to watch Emma Stone take a deep dive into this character and come out sparkling.
Though at its core, the story is about a messed-up young woman learning to embrace her flaws, the film never in a way feels legitimately dangerous or threatening. With director Gillespie injecting his style of inspired needle-drops, rhythmic editing, and whirlwind camera angles, crafting a new kind of Disney film experience that embodies the punk rock movement of the 1970s beautifully and artistically. Sure, there is the expected cartoonish violence here, but most of the heaviness is in the subject of revenge, rather than any real use of profanity, violence, etc.
The film has a whimsical tone to it, and it’s charming really, even if the subject is unpleasant at times. In an unexpected way, the film makes the audience cheer for the title character, having understood exactly what shaped her decisions. It also helps that director Gillespie knows what has to be done to truly fully immerse an audience in a story and environment, and uses the best production design and costume design you’ll see in a film this year.
The production design by Fiona Crombie has a tactility that too many CGI spectaculars lack today, and Jenny Beaven, who did the costumes for Mad Max: Fury Road has delivered another Oscar-worthy wardrobe. The film just looks stunning in every scene, enhanced by a perfect playlist.
However, where the film falters is its handling of the script. For example, the villain’s motives are completely nonexistent, and the screenplay makes no attempt to try to explain and just glosses right over it. The film also doesn’t pack any big emotional punch, which isn’t a bad thing, but definitely does hold the film back from the necessary hit in the climax.
Without a doubt, Emma Stone delivers a top-notch performance and shows once again why she is considered such a great talent. Though the underlying evil that defined her character previously has been watered down, like the skinning of puppies to make a fur coat, Stone makes you root for her throughout even though she isn’t making the best choices. The same can be said for Emma Thompson, who gives life to easily one of the best Disney villain in years with an extremely over-the-top character that harks back to a simpler time when the villains were evil for the sake of being evil.
In supporting roles, Joel Fry and Paul Walter-Hauser have some of the best comedic moments here, and are truly hilarious together, while John McCrea is clearly enjoying himself. Unfortunately in other roles, Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kayvan Novak are underutilized. On the whole, ‘Cruella’ is a gloriously silly yet fun Disney live-action film that is embodied by a rare infectious energy and some delicious performances.
Directed – Craig Gillespie
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 134 minutes