Review: Cruella — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Sit back and enjoy a movie that knows precisely when to pull the levers of familiarity and when to whirl off into some unexpected realm of dark whimsy.

Still from the film "Cruella"
Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone, and Joel Fry in Cruella (Disney)

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⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser

Writers: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis

Director: Craig Gillespie

In Theaters


There’s a fun, stitched-together, Frankenstein-ish quality to Cruella, a live-action prequel that fleshes out the origins of Disney’s most flamboyantly evil villainess: 101 Dalmatian’s screaming, scheming, dog-hoarding narcissist, Cruella de Vil.

There are, of course, echoes of Disney films past throughout Cruella, most notably the requisite motherless female protagonist who burns with ambition for something better in her humble life…and who literally goes from scrubwoman to belle of the ball.

But Cruella also wanders off the Disney fairytale compound to crib from more far-flung sources: There’s no escaping the fact that the main character’s descent-into-madness trajectory is informed by 2019’s Joker. The fashion industry setting breathes the same air as The Devil Wears Prada — and small wonder, since one of Cruella’s writers was also the author of Prada’s screenplay. And it is surely no accident that the film’s posters depict Cruella, in the person of Emma Stone, draping a fashionable cane across her shoulders in exactly the same way dark side heroine Harley Quinn did in Marvel’s Suicide Squad.

“Yeah,” Cruella’s creators seems to smirk. “We’ve seen all the same movies you have. Whaddya gonna do about it?”

What we’re gonna do is sit back and enjoy a movie that knows precisely when to pull the levers of familiarity and when to whirl off into some unexpected realm of dark whimsy. That’s the specialty of director Craig Gillespie, whose off-kilter masterpieces I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl both involved emotionally twisted lead characters who were, in their own ways, both repulsive and irresistible.

It’s thanks to Gillespie’s signature light touch that Cruella, while remaining unflinchingly dark throughout, never subjects Stone’s antiheroine into the Dante-ish mental inferno Joaquin Phoenix endured in Joker.

“That necklace is the reason I’m dead,” Cruella tells us via voice-over in a moody prelude, and while we are reasonably sure she’s speaking figuratively — this is, after all, a prequel to 101 Dalmatians, not a follow-up — her words strike just the right tone of playful peril.

Cruella’s earliest scenes depict the girl’s poor but love-filled English childhood — when her name is Estella and she’s being raised by a doting, if occasionally perplexed, mom (Daphne’s Emily Beecham). Already, the little girl has that distinctive half-silver, half-jet-black hair color, and she exhibits the outspoken precociousness of a youthful Roald Dahl character. Despite the fact that she manifests two distinct personalities — relatively civil Estella and angry, borderline evil Cruella — no one suggests for a moment the child should enter counseling.

In short order, Mom drops out of Estella’s life — quite literally, in the grand tradition of Disney deaths. Finding her way to London, Estella takes up with a couple of street urchins named Jasper and Horace. In the blink of an edit, we find them still living together a decade later, committing small-time heists and running petty scams by day, returning to their sprawling, somehow still-vacant loft by night. And while Cruella is inarguably edgier than most Disney films, fear not; this is no Jules and Jim. Either these three have yet to learn about the complexities of human attraction or they are simply too preoccupied planning their next hustle to do anything about it.

Eventually, like all Disney damsels, Estella begins to aspire to something more. For reasons that later become clear, she feels a particular affinity to the London fashion scene, which in the mid-1960s is a hotbed of hipsters and haute couture hangers-on. They’re all caught within the orbit of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the seemingly soulless, dictatorial head of London’s premier design house.

Estella goes to work for The Baroness, but what starts out as a dream job awakens some pretty awful memories for Estella — resulting in the re-emergence of her long-suppressed Cruella persona. As Estella, she continues to toil at The Baroness’s dress studio — but after hours, she morphs into Cruella, launching her own clothing line and causing a sensation as a reckless, anarchic creature of London nightlife. Before long — and for a reason that would qualify as a spoiler but which the viewer will have guessed a good hour earlier — Cruella embarks on an all-out campaign to destroy her boss.

As Estella/Cruella, Stone brings a delicious sense of mischief. Cruella is, like most villains, a lot more interesting than the more docile Estella; resourceful, quick-witted and irreverent. Stone offers obvious nods to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, but refrains from jumping off the ledge to a freefall of nihilism. If her transition from mild-mannered Estella to manic Cruella seems a bit whiplash inducing, it’s no more jarring than, say, Jack Nicholson’s elevator to crazy in The Shining. Either way, she’s fun to watch.

Stone gamely endeavors to find ways to calibrate Cruella’s transition. On the other hand, to prepare for her role as The Baroness, Thompson seems to have done little more than play a 24-hour loop of Meryl Streep’s haughty fashion magazine editor in Prada. Even the very first glimpse we get of the two women is precisely the same in each movie: a pair of expensive shoes stepping out of a luxury car.

Still, while Streep asked us to look beneath her character’s Iron Lady exterior to find a complex woman of influence, Thompson enters the frame as a tightly wound sociopath and never loosens the spring even one tick. She is, lightly put, a menace to society; perhaps a murderous one.

Which raises the inescapable question: What made The Baroness the way she is? The irony of Cruella is that while this film proffers an explanation for the mania that possesses the future villain of 101 Dalmatians, said explanation turns out to be just another similarly crazed woman in her past. Is this the future of Disney prequels: an endless stacking doll of villain origin stories, each one forged from the abusive fires of yet another, older, evildoer?

These are the kinds of questions, however, that don’t even occur to us until long after Cruella’s fade-out. The film seldom endeavors to be anything but good fun, from the impeccably curated 1960-’70s soundtrack to the sharp supporting performances — particularly by Joel Fry as Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser as Horace (You’ll remember Hauser for his mind-blowing performance as the accused Atlanta Bomber in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell).

Judging by a brief epilog, it’s clear that Disney has its eyes on a sequel, presumably a live-action re-boot of 101 Dalmatians. That’s a tricky proposition given that Glenn Close has already starred in a 1996 version, the first live-action reboot of any Disney cartoon. In that iteration, Close — an executive producer of Cruella — chewed the scenery as an unapologetic, puppy-skinning maniac, an approach that one can only assume would be frowned upon now that Cruella de Vil has been revealed as an emotionally fragile victim of circumstance.

Narratively challenging? Yes. A franchise killer? Really? Just ask yourself: What would Cruella do?

Featured image: Paul Walter Hauser, Emma Stone, and Joel Fry in Cruella (Disney)

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