Synopsis: Penniless and orphaned in London at twelve, four years later Estella runs wild through the city streets with her best friends and partners-in-(petty)-crime. When a chance encounter vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, however, she begins to question the existence she’s built for herself in London and wonders whether she might, indeed, be destined for more after all.
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Abraham Popoola
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running Length: 134 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As a lifelong fan of all things Disney, I must admit a certain coolness toward the canine adventures found in 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the animated film has remained a popular title for the studio, despite having one of the most blatantly vicious villains. A live-action remake in 1996 was just the juicy bit of rawhide star Glenn Close could sink her teeth into playing that very villainess, Cruella de Vil. So though the character still wanted puppies to make a Dalmatian coat of her own, Close’s performance somehow made Cruella less frightening and instead amped the camp. The less said about the ill-advised 2000 sequel, the better, and you really don’t want a deep dive into the disastrous 2009 musical with its eye on Broadway that premiered in my hometown but closed on the road before the real dogs in the show had a chance to grow up and age out.
Where to go from there? The remake had been done, the musicalization was donzo, but with Cruella still getting a fairly good reception whenever she turned up in Disney theme park shows or in television on the Disney-owned ABC’s Once Upon a Time it was clear audiences were somewhat keen to see her show up at the party. After the success of Maleficent and its sequel, how about running old de Vil through the origin story factory and see what pops out? To me, this sounded like an idea for the birds, not the dogs. While Maleficient’s journey toward cursing a princess to eternal slumber might lend itself to a bit of Disney magic, where was the fun in finding out how a skunk-haired meanie developed her admiration for fur and luxury canine couture? Not even bringing on I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie or two Oscar winning Emmas felt like it would do the trick.
Well, like a style guru who must capitulate that a checkerboard print does indeed work for all seasons, I have to say that Cruella is an absolute delight and one of Walt Disney Studios most confidently unique offerings in recent memory. To take a villain many lovers of Disney’s animated oeuvre outright despise is a bold move to begin with, but to give her the kind of genesis the writers have (granted, it took five of them) is a wonder in and of itself. Add to that a cast of actors that sparkle at rest and shine in action and you’re off to the races with a film that operates at full tilt for much of it’s 134-minute run time.
An older Cruella narrates her early years when she was called Estella and Cruella was merely the name for her dark side that came out when she felt threatened or got into mischief. Though she tries her best, Estella can’t always keep her bad side from taking over and that’s why she and her mother have to leave another school in a small village outside London and head back to the city, but not before a late-night stop at an imposing manor hosting a costume ball. Here is where Estella takes her first steps toward life on her own and how she winds up roaming the streets of London alone, eventually meeting young pickpocket street urchins Jasper and Horace who welcome her into their makeshift home.
Years later the gang is grown-up but still at it, though Estella (Emma Stone, The Favourite) longs for a life that stimulates her passion for fashion. Though some fancy footwork Jasper (Joel Fry, In the Earth) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird) get her in the front door for an elite department store that sells clothes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson, Late Night), London’s most chic designer. True, it’s a janitorial job…but it’s something. A series of right time/right place events occur, leading Estella and The Baroness to cross paths with Estella eventually joining her fashion house as their youngest designer with cutting edge ideas. However, as she quickly learns, the demanding job comes with a price…and a very wicked boss. Soon, an old friend Estella had locked away comes roaring back and this time Cruella isn’t going to play second fiddle to her better self.
One need only look at the screenwriters for Cruella and a lot of what transpires in the film begins to make sense. Writer Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and there are quite a number of parallels between Cruella and that blockbuster. There’s more than a little of that Miranda Priestly bite from Prada in Thompson’s The Baroness, though Thompson is handed even more rapid-fire one-liners and small bits of physicality that drive home her sting. Make certain of this, Miranda Priestly is no match for The Baroness. Then you have Steve Zissis, a long-time friend and collaborator with the Duplass brothers who are known for their quirky approach to filmmaking and fleshing out characters. That’s evident in the supporting characters of Cruella, with a number of the secondary players far more developed than they normally would be in these types of films. That’s how Fry, Hauser, and even Mark Strong (Shazam!) as the stoic right-hand man for The Baroness are able to sneak in and steal some small moments here and there. Finally, Kelly Marcell worked with Thompson in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks so she knows how to write caustic one-liners for the actress and also bravely adapted the screenplay for 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. This experience no doubt helps with a little of that duality found in the Estella/Cruella scenes, chiefly near the film’s finale when Stone gets quite the scene that would be an 11 o’clock number if it was set to music.
Speaking of Stone, while I’ve found the actress successful in fits and spurts over the years (I still don’t agree with that Best Actress Oscar win, though, sorry!) she’s a fabulous choice to bring this classic personality to live-action life. In her early scenes, she’s appropriately green and goofball but the more she learns of the game she has to play to get ahead, the faster she comes into focus with self-confidence. I was nervous when her adult Cruella side first appeared because the shift is admittedly jarring, and Stone’s interpretation of Cruella’s upper-crust purr is more broad comedy than the sophisticatedly arch tones the rest of the film has been playing with. Anything would be jostling next to Thompson though, who plays the role so brittle you expect her to crack into shards to shred anyone in her wake at any moment. In a more creative climate, this kind of role would win Thompson an award, but the character is probably too soulless to be rewarded.
Knowing it was well over two hours going in, I tried to find places where director Gillespie might have trimmed things up, but I’m at a loss to say what could go that wouldn’t do damage to other structural parts of the story. While it has a fairly large climax halfway through, the energy of the movie never dips. Besides, with a driving score by Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk), wonderful production design from Fiona Crombie (Macbeth), and stunning costumes courtesy of 2-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), there’s little reason to ever be bored – there is always something to take in. I’d have liked to see a little less digital work in the outdoor scenes but seeing that much of Cruella was filmed on a soundstage, this was obviously unavoidable.
Parents, take note that Cruella rated PG-13 and it’s for a reason. I’d wager it’s one of the darkest films ever released under the Walt Disney Studios logo (i.e., not Touchstone, Hollywood Films, etc) but I’m glad nothing seemed to be truly, uh, neutered. The darker parts are meant for a more mature child, likely the ones already watching Disney Channel works that have a similar feel, like The Descendants. If you’re one of those people that get hung up on the “dog coat” of it all, try to remember this is Disney we’re talking about. It’s important going in to try your best to separate this movie from the 1956 film and its remake, don’t put this one in the doghouse on principle alone. If you do, you’re going to mess a heck of a fun ride. This is a highly enjoyable endeavor, well worth the cost of renting it for a family night on Disney+ with Premier Access.