Akin to Disney revisionist villain origins of Maleficent, Cruella reimagines the 101 Dalmations villain as both a tragic girl and anti-hero fashion magnet. Yes, it’s yet another Disney retread of a familiar property but at least this time there’s some spark of visual flair and originality to be more than just a box-ticking franchise revival. There’s actually some style, camp, and allure in the studio’s bold attempt to make audiences give a crap about such a figure who would grow into slaughtering puppies for coats. This aspect certainly makes Cruella one of the stronger Disney live-action adaptations of late but also more confounding in that it presents a mixed-message film of nature versus nurture.
Cruella de Ville (Emma Stone) narrates her own story with perhaps too much detail. Even she seems surprised how far back this film starts, watching her own birth and starting the film with the lines “Oh, we’re starting here.” Anyway, we learn that Cruella wasn’t always Cruella and was once known as Estella, though she still had that black and white hair, a perhaps too on-the-nose observance of her being in a battle of good versus evil. When her mother is killed at a fancy party, Estella takes to the streets and becomes an expert thief while flexing her fashion design expertise on the streets of 1970s London.
Estella’s bitterness and bold statements soon attract the attention of fashion giant Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a shrill and cold-hearted titan in the world of all things clothing. And by this point, the obvious comparison comes about: The Devil Wears Prada, sure to garner the easy joke of The De vill Wears Prada. Except this film proceeds by asking if the plucky intern seeking to prove herself didn’t quit the scummy game of cruel rule and instead played the game better. Once Estella realizes that Hellman had a hand in the demise of her mother, revenge is on the table and served up the only way she knows how with pickpocketing, heists, and elaborate costumes, transforming herself into the Cruella persona she always knew she’d be.
Director Craig Gillespie does his best to give Cruella a punk style that is certainly distant from previous Disney interpretations but also quite dirivitive of other notable crime works. Estella’s first major job of scrubbing floors for a fashion house proceeds with a one-shot trick that duplicates the restraunt scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, complete with the retro rock soundtrack placed over the meandering camera. But, hey, if you’re going to rip-off other films, you might as well pick the best inspirations to draw from. That being said, the music choices of various 1960s and 1970s rock and pop of the era do show a bit of lacking style in the choices for soundtrack, though I must admit I was surprised the film didn’t make the dubious choice of playing the overly used London Calling.
The highlight here is by far the astounding styles of Stone and Thompson duking it out in their ways of upstaging each other. Thompson’s performance is absolutely oozing sinister intent with her coldly pompous stares and unamused tones. She at one point takes a slash at Estella’s design and accidentally cuts her, finding herself more intrigued for the color of the blood for an outfit than getting her designer some help. Stone is able to encapsulate both the shy Estella and the rebellious Cruella with her own unique take on the character.
But speaking of Cruella, there’s a very concerning element to her story of rising to power. Throughout the film, we’re led to believe that Cruella’s destiny to be bad was a cruel hand of fate that pushed her mother over a cliff. When we later learn that hand was of this world, there’s a discovery made that Cruella was perhaps evil since birth and thus doomed to take such a stance as rising in the cutthroat world of fashion. This message becomes all the more muddied as the film progresses up to the point where Estella fakes her own death to kill off that part of herself and finally become the Cruella destiny dictates she becomes.
This aspect really bothers me considering how strong the film is in every other aspect. The style is rich and vibrant, looking unlike any other Disney movie, Dalmation or otherwise. The supporting cast of characters is giving it their all, from the intelligent Joel Fry to the chummy Paul Walter Hauser to the queer-coded Jon McCrea. Jon McCrea’s role, a local clothing store dealer, has been labeled as the first openly gay character in a Disney movie, though the more accurate label would be an openly gay character who wasn’t completely kicked to the background or could be easily edited out for more conservative-minded countries.
And that’s perhaps the best way to look at Cruella, as a baby steps movie that is so close to being more than just a retread for the hell of it. There’s a vibrant punk aesthetic but also a lot of familiar lifting of inspirations that becomes distracting at times. There are fine performances abound but also a lot of thankless roles with Kirby Howell-Baptiste being the black best friend shoved to the side and Mark Strong just being the kind soul who only pops in when needed. The heist elements are neat but an abundant usage of CGI dogs throughout quickly takes one out of the fast-paced caper antics. Cruella is very much a case of style over substance, all the more aggravating because its style is just so damn good.