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Disney+ Review: Cruella

May 28, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Disney’s latest live action film to be based on one of their classic animated properties, Cruella is the weirdest and most unique of the studio’s recent remakes, which is to say that it’s also one of their best.

After a string of fine but needless retreads like Aladdin, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp that basically copied the animated films beat for beat, this one at least carves out enough of its own identity to fully justify its existence.

No, we didn’t need an origin story of the 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil, but this is probably the best version of one that we could have gotten. The film works because it doesn’t simply try to retell the story of 101 Dalmatians, which already got a live action remake with Glenn Close in the Cruella role in 1996, opting instead to mostly be its own thing.

And its “thing” is basically an incredibly entertaining 1970s punk rock take on The Devil Wears Prada, which is as enjoyable as it sounds. I would, in large part, credit the surprising success of Cruella to the fact that it’s directed by Craig Gillespie. I didn’t think I needed to see a Tonya Harding biopic either, and he proved me wrong with his previous film I, Tonya in 2017. This film almost feels like a natural, albeit more family-friendly successor to that one, with its use of voiceover and needle-drops feeling stylistically similar.

The screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), working from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), Kelly Marcel and Steven Zissis, is built upon the idea that “Cruella” is actually the dark alter-ego of a young woman named Estella (Emma Stone). The prologue introduces us to Estella as a mischievous young girl born with black and white hair, whose mother (Emily Beecham) trains her to suppress her darker “Cruella” side.

When her mother is killed in an unfortunate incident involving Dalmatians, Estella is left orphaned and turns to a life of petty crime, which is a pretty fitting villain origin story for someone we know will come to hate the white-and-black spotted dogs. We then catch up to Estella living in 1970s London with a pair of low-level thieves, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, stealing every scene).

They pick pockets to get cash, but Estella aspires to be a fashion designer. When she gets her dream job working for The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the self-appointed queen of the London fashion scene, a rivalry ends up forming between them. Estella allows her darker Cruella side to re-emerge, and starts upstaging her at society events with punk rock fashion statements, leading to an engagingly performed “battle of the Emmas” between Stone and Thompson.

This is a good setup for a twisting and turning story that deviates from the expected path of 101 Dalmatians, while still working in a few nods to it. Despite running for a lengthy 134 minutes, Cruella actually moves surprisingly quickly. The film is also quite well crafted on a technical level, offering a lot of visual appeal. The production design by Fiona Crombie, who received an Oscar nomination for her work on The Favourite, is attractively moody and does a good job of capturing the time period, while also offering a heightened version of it.

The costumes by Jenny Beavan, who won an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road and deserves consideration for her work here as well, feel like a character unto themselves, with the rivalry between Cruella and The Baroness playing out mostly through increasingly elaborate fashion designs. The cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis matches this grand vision, with swooping camera moves that take us through the London streets and into buildings.

At times, the film does feel like it is trying a bit too hard to turn Cruella into more of a sympathetic anti-hero instead of a straight up villain (even giving her canine friends to fawn over), which doesn’t quite mesh with a character that we all know will eventually morph into a would-be dog murderer. The film certainly flirts with the darkness of her character, but it pulls back slightly and stops just short of fully going there in the end.

Still, Estella’s tragic backstory is largely effective, and Cruella works as an often surprisingly involving origin story that, at least on paper, sounded somewhat needless. The film is at its most interesting when exploring how Estella comes to terms with her apparent destiny to be bad, as she essentially morphs into a version of the icy Baroness in her attempts to take her down. While done within the confines of a Disney film, which obviously prevents her from going full Joker, it’s a tormented psychological battle that Emma Stone plays extremely well.

The film mainly serves as a great showcase for Stone, who does an excellent job of portraying the more reserved Estella’s transformation into fierce mean girl Cruella. While Stone is clearly having fun with the role, developing a rebellious punk rock attitude as it goes along, she also imbues her portrayal with a good deal of pathos. There is one scene in particular following a narrative revelation that is allowed to play solely off her makeup-streaked face, and it’s a genuine acting moment. Thompson also leaves her mark as the true villain of the piece, turning The Baroness into a wicked antagonist who is never less than entertaining to watch. Think Meryl Strep in The Devil Wears Prada.

Yes, Cruella is a little darker and a little different than the usual Disney remake, but it’s also better than most. Gillespie does a very good job of balancing the film’s tone, with a slightly sinister bite to it that is juxtaposed with just the right amount of campiness. The entire film plays to a soundtrack of wall-to-wall rock songs from the 1960s and ’70s, with some ironically obvious needle drops that kept me tapping my feet. The songs are matched by an amazing and at times surprisingly eery musical score by composer Nicholas Britell, that really helps tie the whole film together. It’s a nice surprise all around.

Cruella is now available to rent for $34.99 on Disney+ with Premier Access, and is also playing in selected theatres where they are open.

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