Since seeing its first trailer three months ago, Disney’s new film “Cruella” has had me in a shared state of fascination and bewilderment. On one hand I couldn’t wait to see Emma Stone dive headfirst into a demented character like Cruella de Vil. On the other hand how would Disney treat the backstory of one of the company’s most devious and notorious villains? Would they soften the edges of her story and go a more sympathetic route?
To no surprise Disney teases but ultimately steers clear of classic Cruella’s more diabolical character traits. Instead, any real evil is channeled through an entirely new character played by Emma Thompson. This Cruella is painted as a tragic figure whose pain turns her into a peculiar anti-hero of sorts. I’m not sure how this will sit with the devoted Cruella purists (if those people even exist), but I absolutely loved this deliciously unruly romp and the movie exceeded what expectations I had in every way imaginable.
“Cruella” comes from director Craig Gillespie and is a surprising step up from the many Disney live-action remakes. Okay, so this isn’t a ‘remake’ per se, but it does add a stylish new spin to an iconic character. Clocking in at two hours and fourteen minutes I was a little nervous. But at no time was I checking my watch or feeling the length. That’s because Gillespie, co-writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, and one of the best acting ensembles of the year pour every bit of themselves into this wickedly (and unexpectedly) fun origin story.
Emma Stone absolutely crackles in the titular role, adding heaps of seasoning to both sides of her character. Through Stone’s narration and a really well done prologue we meet Estella, played in flashbacks by a delightful Tipper Seifert-Cleveland. She’s a spirited young girl and aspiring fashion designer who has stood out from the crowd from the day she popped out of the womb. As Stone wryly explains “From the very beginning I’ve always made a statement,” and not just by her natural half-black, half-white mane. It’s her mischievous and assertive personality that makes her a handful for her mother (Emily Beecham) and gets her into the most trouble.
I won’t spoil the entire prologue but a young and alone Estella ends up in London after her mother’s tragic death. There she falls in with two pickpocketing orphans Jasper and Horace who live in the attic of an old abandoned church. Jump ahead several years and the three of them have made a decent living bopping around 1970s London swiping wallets and pulling small heists. Estella (now played by Stone) uses her fashion design genius to make their disguises while Jasper (the always great Joel Frey) and Horace (the scene-stealing Paul Walter Hauser) do a lot of the legwork.
Things slowly begin to change after Jasper gets Estella an entry-level position at a renowned fashion house ran by the devilishly chic and grossly narcissistic Baroness von Hellman (Thompson). It offers Estella a chance to get her foot in the door and finally realize her dream. But she quickly learns what all the other employees know but are too afraid to say – working for the relentlessly cruel Baroness isn’t easy.
Soon the Baroness’ nastiness and vainglory (mixed with a big reveal or two) gives birth to Estella’s flamboyant alter ego Cruella, a rather twisted amalgam of her pain and personality. It leads to a bitter rivalry between a haute and haughty industry legend and a ferocious new fashion provocateur. And as the mysterious Cruella captures more and more headlines, Estella starts to slowly fade into the background, becoming more of a disguise than a true identity.
From its earliest moments “Cruella” zips along with tenacious energy and a rich visual style. The stellar production design, the exquisite fashion, and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis’ lively camera ensure that there is always something to catch your eye. Oscar nominations for Hair and Makeup and Costume Design are all but assured. And I’m guessing a big chunk of the budget must have went towards the soundtrack. It seems every other scene features another great song. Blondie, ELO, Deep Purple, Queen, and so many more. I was bouncing my head through the entire movie. Sometimes that can feel like a crutch, but here it fits with the film’s carefree anarchic attitude.
And then you get back to the performances. Stone really sinks her teeth into the role, brilliantly capturing Cruella’s razor-sharp cunning and devilish charm. There’s even a subtle glint of vulnerability in the rare quiet scenes, namely her visits to the fountain in Region’s Park where she has heartfelt conversations with her late mother. And then you have Emma Thompson matching Stone step-for-step. Who knew vanity could be so hilarious? Thompson is given so many good lines that she delivers with the perfect mix of venom and spot-on comic timing. Her black-hearted Baroness is as funny as she is detestable. Both Stone and Thompson are helped by ace supporting performances across the board. Frey, Hauser, Beecham, Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Ed Birch – just some of the film’s many essential pieces.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but “Cruella” could end up being the biggest surprise of 2021. It’s brash, rowdy, and wickedly entertaining from start to finish. It fills its running time with great faces, a fabulous 1970’s London aesthetic, and killer music drops at every turn. It’s not an overstatement to say both Stone and Thompson deserve Oscar nominations for giving us two of the most warped yet entertaining characters we are likely to get all year. A part of me wishes they hadn’t played it so safe and let Cruella off her leash to truly become a villain. But in fairness Disney isn’t much for venturing into darker places these days, and the fact they went this far was a real treat. “Cruella” releases in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access this Friday, May 28th.