From Maleficient to Joker, villainous origin stories have been getting their time in the spotlight. Finally, a chance to dive deeper into some of cinema’s most iconic foes, but was anyone waiting for the story of an attempted puppy killer? Cruella, starring none other than Emma Stone in the titular role, joins the ongoing trend of Disney live-action adaptations. Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), the film draws plenty of inspiration from the 1970s Punk movement. At times, it’s actually hard to believe that this falls under the Disney umbrella. Cruella, without question, marches to the beat of her own drum and surprise, it’s not all about dalmatians.
It wouldn’t be an origin story without a name change, for Cruella was once Estella. The film begins with a young, rebellious Estella growing up in 1960s London. Having lived with her loving mother until her untimely death, orphan Estella is left to fend for herself but soon meets Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). They form a misfit family of professional thieves with Estella, naturally, making all their disguises from scratch. The dynamic between Horace, Jasper, and their sidekick dog (winks) adds a delightful layer of comedy. It’s a kitschy life for them, however, Estella yearns to be a fashion designer.
Fashion is at the center of it all. Thanks to prolific Costume Designer Jenny Beavan’s breathtaking work, the fabrics on-screen drive the story in show-stopping ways. Cruella takes an almost Devil Wears Prada-esque turn once fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (expertly played by Emma Thompson) enters the narrative. Unironically, the Baroness owns vicious dalmatians that end up playing a key role. Estella goes to work designing the Baroness’ latest collection. Thompson commands the film as a genius force who always gets her way. In reality, the duo are two sides of the same coin. Constantly challenging each other’s weaknesses, Baroness is too hash while Estella is “too weak.” This quickly changes as Cruella’s inner rebel longs to break free from the shadow of her superiors. It’s a gradual descent into who she truly is, as her mother would call it her “Cruella” side.
The most exciting moments of the film are when Cruella begins to defy and mock the Baroness’ influence at various social events. With the help of her misfit crew, she quite literally crashes red carpets in larger than life outfits. There’s a moment where Cruella arrives to an event in a garbage truck and spectacularly emerges out of the trash in a gorgeous gown. Out with the tired past fashions of the Baroness and in with “The Future” as Cruella’s makeup states in one look. While all of this is superb, the film eventually feels a little too contrived for its own good. Cruella can walk the walk, in ways that many recent live-action Disney films have failed to, but still features some foreseen downfalls.
With such a plot-heavy film, it’s clear that story edits were desperately needed. There’s so much going on and it’s a shame some supporting characters weren’t seen more. Kirby Howell-Baptiste is very charming as up and coming journalist Anita Darling. Her inclusion as Cruella’s old school friend will please many 101 Dalmations fans, although her role does fall under an all too popular cliche. There’s a few more fun more nods to Disney’s classic tale, with even Roger (Kayvan Novak) making an appearance. Another key player who joins Cruella’s fashion world takeover is Artie (John McCrea), who could arguably be an open LGBTQ member though it’s never stated or confirmed (another damning Hollywood practice). Nonetheless, his presence is more than welcome in his Bowie-style outfits and memorable performance.
Uniquely, Cruella sets a new standard for Disney live-action films. Though the film tackles familiar characters, the stylistic choices make this its own standalone piece. The production design has some great juxtaposition between Cruella’s gritty loft to the lush standards of the Baroness. Going between both of these worlds helps set the catalyst of the final act. Alongside the bold fashion is a recognizable soundtrack to match the era. Plenty of needle drops, featuring the likes of The Clash, play as Cruella wreaks havoc. While these musical additions will certainly appeal to general audiences, there could have been a deeper selection of Punk tracks throughout. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said of this commitment to creating such a playing field to match the rebellious nature of the film and title character.
Cruella is a surprisingly dark, multilayered tale that will surely entertain older audiences. Emma Stone completely transforms into the ruthless villain persona. The film never tries to make one fully sympathize with her or make her redeemable in any form. In doing so, it avoids the fears many had when this origin story was first announced. She doesn’t fall into the biggest mistakes of her live-action Disney predecessors, yet it’s still hard to determine who this film was exactly made for? With such a dark tone and dense plot, will this draw in a new generation of fans? Probably not for those looking for cute dalmatian puppies. Even if Cruella doesn’t manage to completely define its purpose, it’s hard not to get sucked into it’s chaotic charm.