Disney’s live-action Cruella may be the studio’s best attempt at reimagining one of its villains via an origin story. The film is not without its flaws, notably the occasional “Remember, this is a DISNEY movie” insertions into an otherwise interesting story. Still, Cruella succeeds in being surprisingly entertaining thanks to a clear artistic vision by director Craig Gillespie, its star Emma Stone as Estella/Cruella, the incomparable Emma Thompson as her nemesis, and a strong supporting cast.
In this telling of Cruella’s origins, the audience meets her as the gifted misfit Estella who, despite her mother’s pleas to her to try to fit in, is predictably bullied due to her shocking monochromatic locks. Bloodied but not broken, Estella gives back to her playground tormenters as good as she gets. Ultimately, a tragic event leaves her an orphan fending for herself on the streets of London, with only her dog for company, leading a Dickensian existence with Horace and Jasper, two other orphans. Though they survive via petty theft, Estella has dreams of being a fashion designer. She eventually gets a low-level job in a couture house where she meets the Baroness von Hellman, and her life, and the real story, begins.
With Cruella, Disney finally gets the villain “makeover” right. Where Maleficent failed, Cruella succeeds beautifully, managing to avoid what might have been its biggest stumbling block, previous incarnations of its title character. After all, Cruella de Vil is one of the “best” of Disney’s villains. She ranks, in evil, right up there with Maleficent, Snow White’s mother, and Scar. She is unapologetically, hilariously selfish, vain, and ultimately inept at carrying out her evil plans and audiences love to hate her. She’s the perfect Disney villain and one of my personal favorites.
However, this is also the character who looked at a litter of adorable Dalmatian puppies only to imagine how good they’d look as a coat, so I had no interest in exploring what early trauma might have turned Cruella into that creature. Therefore, going into it, I resented the producers who would try to make me empathize with this would-be puppy-killer, and this thought kept me from immersing myself in the tale, initially.
Luckily, there was no attempt to shoehorn that Cruella into a rewrite. Instead, the creators opted to set the story in another universe. In this story, Cruella is not the spoiled, selfish, useless creature from 101 Dalmatians or the owner of the House of de Vil as in the live-action Dalmatians movie, but a version of the same character that keeps the best of who she is and tosses the rest. Instead of loving to hate this Cruella, we end up rooting for her, even admiring her. Still, one can’t help but think how much better the film might have been had there been no conflict as to whether the studio wanted to tame the wilder aspects of its Cruella to hang on to its Disney audience and keep it PG-13.
A great deal of the credit for the film’s success goes to Stone, who makes no attempt at homage to the animated version, or the character as played by Glenn Close in the live-action Dalmatians. Her Estella/Cruella is unique and fabulous. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but three stand out: Estella in her flat, hand-sewing a beaded gown, the look of grim determination as her mind calculates all the intricacies of her plans is a joy to behold; a scene involving a trash truck (I won’t say anymore because you just have to see it for yourself); and a monologue to her mother which is a masterclass in emotional range.
Emma Thompson was, of course, very good and quite glamorous as the Baroness von Hellman. But no one who saw The Devil Wears Prada could help but feel a sense of déjà vu from time to time. Also, occasionally, Thompson was saddled with tedious dialogue and action. I can only guess that the producers felt the need for a replacement villain now that Cruella herself had become more of an anti-hero, so they wanted some mustache-twirling to make the distinction clear. To her credit, she gave the audience more credit than that and worked to keep the character from becoming too cartoonish, succeeding most of the time.
The supporting cast was especially fun to watch. In this universe, henchmen Horace and Jasper, played expertly by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry, are no longer Cruella’s nasty and clumsy louts from the earlier films. These guys are now her true and loyal friends who she considers family. They are funny, smart, and kind of adorable. They provide the film’s soft center by keeping Estella from completely giving in to her darker instincts as Cruella. The heists and capers they pull off are as clever as anything in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. Also, one of their partners-in-crime is a dog named Wink who nearly steals the show.
Then there is the character of Artie, played by John McCrea, who runs a vintage clothing store and becomes Estella’s friend at first sight via their mutual love of all things fashion. He is also the first openly LGBTQ character in a Disney film, which is a big step for Disney. The talented McCrea infuses the smart, witty, and gorgeous Artie with a nice balance of joie de vivre and worldliness, which makes him the perfect addition to Estella’s team.
Oddly, the human protagonists in the Dalmatian films, Roger, played by Kayvan Novak, and Anita, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste, are all but sidelined in Cruella. Roger is the Baroness’ lawyer and, frankly, doesn’t do much in the film. Anita is still Estella’s old school friend, transformed into a newspaper journalist, documenting for the public all the wild events when Cruella makes herself known to the fashion world. But there is nothing more to her story and that’s a waste of a lot of talent.
It wouldn’t be overstating to say that the real stars in the film are the entire design team whose work was nearly perfect (but for one unfortunate exception – more on that later). The story is set in 1970s London, in the heart of the fashion world which was about to be turned on its head by the punk movement. A tall order, which was expertly filled by production designer Fiona Crombie and set decorator Alice Felton, who recreated the period and iconic fashion locations like Liberty of London department store, immersing the audience in this gritty yet dazzling world.
As impressive as the sets and locations were, it was the eye-popping costume designs that ruled the runway, as it were. Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan served up unforgettable looks, draping both Emmas in simply splendid outfits.
The one area where the designs didn’t work, for me, was with Cruella’s wigs, and I’m truly confused about this, given the importance of her hair. For some reason, not one of the black and white wigs worked because they didn’t look like her real hair. How this is possible considering the attention paid to every other aspect of the film is beyond me.
Also, in case you wondered, there were no animals harmed in the making of the movie. The dogs and other critters were real in most cases but when occasionally recreated for specific moments, the CGI is barely noticeable. Also, most of the dogs and their stand-ins were rescues who were adopted into good homes after filming, a fact of which I think that THIS Cruella would approve.
In the end, despite the overlong running time and the “Disney film vs non-Disney film” identity crisis, I was won over by Cruella. Like the character, the film is complex and flawed, but good at its core. You can’t help watching and wondering what might come next. And, doggone it, I’m looking forward to a sequel.
Cruella is open in theaters everywhere and on Disney+.
“Cruella” stars Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong. The film is directed by Craig Gillespie, with screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, story by Aline Brosh McKenna and Kelly Marcel & Steve Zissis, based upon the novel “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith. “Cruella” is produced by Andrew Gunn, Marc Platt, and Kristin Burr, p.g.a., with Emma Stone, Michelle Wright, Jared LeBoff, and Glenn Close serving as executive producers.