Hello cruel world.
Well, you know, everything is relative. From the orthodox point of view, Disney’s collection of (mostly female — what’s up with that?) villains are just straight-up irredeemably evil. Then Maleficent came along in 2014 and showed that with a bit of tweaking and a shift of consciousness, the iconic baddie from Sleeping Beauty (1959) could be a heroine, albeit a haughty and imperious one. That flick begat a sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), that was less commercially successful, but Disney seems convinced that the theory is sound, and so here comes a prequel reinvention of Cruella de Vil, the monstrous would-be puppy murderer of 101 Dalmatians (1961). One must appreciate the confidence.
Throwing chronological sense to the wind (but to good effect), Cruella sets its scene in the fashion demimonde of 1970s London, just on the cusp of the punk explosion. There, we follow the exploits of young Estella (Emma Stone, with Tipper Seifert-Cleveland playing the younger version in the opening scenes), an orphan with a flair for fashion who wants to be a designer. Instead, she’s a century-on Dickensian ragamuffin, having teamed up with vagabond thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) following the death of her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham).
Things start looking up when the trio manage to scam her an entry-level position at the prestigious fashion house run by the imperious Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), where Estella’s raw talent and moxie see her climbing the ladder quite quickly, only being stymied by the fact that the Baroness is an amoral, vindictive bitch who flagrantly steals the work of her underlings to pass off as her own (if you’ve ever been even remotely involved in the fashion industry, you know this is essentially a documentary).
Luckily — or unluckily, depending on your read of the situation — Estella has a dark side. Her mother called her mean streak “Cruella” for reasons that should be obvious. It’s as Cruella that our … heroine might not be the right word, so let’s go with protagonist … makes her mark as a kind of punk rock guerrilla fashionista, gatecrashing galas and staging her own anarchic happenings, setting her on a collision course with von Hellman.
Three paragraphs are way more than I usually like to spend on a plot synopsis, but that’s still the bare minimum you need to get a handle on Cruella, a visually sumptuous, thematically ambitious, messy bitch of a film. I didn’t even get into what underpins Cruella’s hatred of Dalmatians, which is absolutely nuts and still doesn’t really explain how the ruthless but essentially good-hearted young woman we meet here becomes the puppy-pilfering villain of the other entries in the Dalmatians franchise. Best to think of this as a — and I hesitate to use the word — “reimagining,” a work that takes the iconography (Cruella’s stark black and white hair is apparently natural, by the way) and basic characteristics of the source and employs them for a different purpose.
It works, for the most part. The whole thing is too long, and it sprawls when it should hustle, but what we have here is the story of a talented, eccentric outsider trying to make it in the straight world and going rogue when it turns out the normies are all crooked AF anyway, and I will almost always dance to that tune. It’s also carrying shedloads of Big Queer Energy, as it befits a film set in both the fashion industry and the ‘70s. Boutique owner Artie (John McCrea), one of Cruella’s allies, is being touted as Disney’s first openly gay original live-action character, but a) he doesn’t actually do anything “gay,” and b) if he’s coded as queer, then so too is almost everyone else in the film to one degree or another, not the least of whom is the title character, who eschews almost every hint of romance in her pursuit of her passion for fashion and makes a marked point of looking fabulous while doing so.
Stone is perfect in the role, tonally and aesthetically. It’s a part that could be all surface and affected mannerism, but she lets us see the unhealed wounds that propel Cruella on her trajectory. It’s a superb performance, heightened to match the larger-than-life tone that director Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya (2017), is aiming for, but still anchored in recognizable emotion. Thompson doesn’t get that layer of complexity, but she does play a haughty, arrogant queen bee to the hilt, giving Stone’s Cruella a fantastic nemesis. The rest of the cast, which includes Mark Strong, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), as von Hellman’s butler and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, The Good Place (2018-20), as Cruella’s childhood friend, Anita “Tattletale” Darling, are all rock-solid, embracing the capital D Drama for all its worth.
Indeed, it’s the tone, the style, the flash, and the grandeur that really resonate, and I strongly suspect that this, along with the strong queer themes, is going to ensure that a decade down the track, a generation of artsy kids are going to be citing this film as a formative text. At the very least, they’ll have been exposed to a banging, albeit elderly, soundtrack; Sabbath and The Stones, Bowie, and Blondie, Queen, The Clash, and more all get an airing. Personally, I could have used more punk in the mix — whither Siouxsie, The Damned, The Sex Pistols? — but that’s just me. Interestingly, both the soundtrack and the production design kind of take us on a journey from the staid and dowdy ‘50s to the wild and weird ‘70s. It’s not meant to be taken literally — at least not strictly so — but it’s a great visual and aural motif, mirroring the protagonist’s own path. The costumes, by Academy Award winner Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), run the gamut from the grandiosity of the catwalk to handmade and half-rescued streetwear and, most importantly, the interstitial space in between where our girl operates in all her iconoclastic glory. Indeed, the entire aesthetic is carefully considered and boldly provocative that, although it never for a second resembles “real life,” we really must stan, as the kids say.
Now, the thing is that Cruella is a real easy film to take cheap shots at. Snide comparisons to the Joker (2019) abound online, and puns like The De Vil Wears Prada have crept into enough headlines and reviews already. It strikes me as a failure to meet the film on its own level and engage with what it’s actually trying to do and the story it’s trying to tell. The less cynical, the younger, or both (artsy kids, I love ya) have a much better chance of picking up what Gillespie and his team are putting down.
It’s also a rare film that could really benefit from a sequel. The gulf between Cruella, the cartoon villain of the other movies, and the Cruella we leave when the credits roll here is vast, but not uncrossable, and there is an unspoken tension, a question left hanging — how do we get to there from here, and at what cost? Indeed, will we make that journey? Perhaps this Cruella will not damn herself with acts of outright villainy down the track. I hope so; I like her a lot. She’s an absolute star.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson