The obligatory reinvention of the Disney villain juggles its plots and characters alongside typically solid work from Emma Stone.
Cruella de Vil is an A-List villain in a B-List franchise. Sure, 101 Dalmatians and its spinoffs have their charms, but no other aspect in the franchise has the staying power of Cruella and her iconic theme song. It’s no surprise that Disney would release an origin story for the character with Craig Gillespie’s Cruella. It’s a logical step for the company to take, but the iconic villain presents a major stumbling block: how can you make a villainess whose traditional motivation is to kill dogs for a coat into a likable hero, or at least an antihero?
First, cast Emma Stone as the lead. Second, have Cruella adopt a puppy within the first five minutes of the movie. Third, disregard everything about the previous 101 Dalmatians canon except for character names.
Screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara have completely reworked Cruella’s character, turning an entitled upper-class antagonist into a poor and plucky underdog trying to achieve her dreams of taking over the fashion scene of 1970s London. The only carryover is her love of fashion, although without the focus on animal skins. Hell, in this installment, Cruella is a nom de plume for her fashion label, with her actual name being Estella. The name change and motivation shift turn the character from a camp villain to a protagonist who matches modern sensibilities.
This turns the plot of Cruella into a battle of business wits between Cruella and Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a designer who dominates the London fashion scene. While Cruella initially works for and admires the Baroness, her admiration turns to hatred when she discovers that the Baroness had an antagonistic relationship with Cruella’s dead mother. This discovery, plus the Baroness’s exploitative nature, inspires Cruella to sabotage the couturiere by disrupting her fashion shows with outrageous stunts, culminating in a guerilla fashion show in Regent’s Park.
These stunts are the most enjoyable part of Cruella with their creative staging and striking costumes by Jenny Beavan. For most of the film, the cinematography has the same corporate slickness and Hollywood realism that plagues Disney live-action films. But in these scenes, DP Nicolas Karakatsanis is given more creative freedom to showcase the avant-garde fashions, giving Cruella a cinematic quality not found in most of the studio’s recent output.
The slight edginess to the visuals is fitting since it’s clear that this is Disney’s attempt at be, well… edgy. A lot of people responded to the advertisement and trailers by calling Cruella “Joker for girls,” and they’re not wrong. The story of a woman who’s beaten down by her life prospects only to rise up against a jerky aristocrat is a Disneyfied version of the Todd Phillips’ Joker. Weirdly, it works. While Gillepsie sanded down most of Cruella’s edges, it’s fun to watch a Disney protagonist whose primary motive is revenge, and seeing her plots unfold is engaging. It even comes with a few twists.
The Joker similarities are also physical. Once Estella fully embraces the Cruella persona, her look becomes distinctly Joker-like, with pale skin and red lipstick. Stone also fully leans into the traditional Hollywood school of acting crazy, with plenty of tilted heads, wide smiles, and that telltale gleam in her eye. It’s not a revelatory performance, but it’s still a fun one that works with the story and the world of the film, and it sets Cruella apart from other Disney leads.
Despite it being over two hours long, the pacing rarely drags, Gillepsie keeping a consistent tone.
That isn’t to say the Mouse hasn’t glossed his patina of family-friendliness over the final product. There are a lot of classic Disney themes in Cruella, specifically with her relationship with her henchmen Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). In the 101 Dalmatians movies, these two are simply hired goons. Here, they’re childhood friends. As Cruella’s quest for revenge against the Baroness grows, she begins to inhabit her foe’s worst qualities of entitlement and bossiness, and this causes the predictable “you’ve changed!” subplot that’s in so many Disney offerings. While it would have been nice to have the secondary tension be a little more original, it’s at least well-executed.
Disappointingly, the Baroness also feels familiar. If it’s obvious that Cruella is supposed to be Disney’s Joker, it’s even more obvious that the Baroness is supposed to be their Miranda Priestly. Most of her scenes are full of her making outrageous demands and being caustically critical with a sardonic wit. But while The Devil Wears Prada gave Miranda some humanizing moments, Cruella denies the Baroness any. She’s a straight-up villain who neither gives nor receives any sympathy. However, Thompson saves the character with a delightfully sinister performance that allows her to revel in the character’s worst moments in a way that’s repulsive yet fun.
That isn’t to say that all the characters feel retread. This film’s versions of Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak) are markedly different from their original characters. Anita is a journalist whose spitfire personality is a refreshing contrast to her passive, previous iterations. Roger is less of a departure as the Baroness’ bumbling lawyer, but Novak makes him much more charming than his previous incarnations. The filmmakers also make their relationship with Cruella more amicable than it was in previous movies, making it more clear why Anita would be friends with her.
While it’d have been nice if Cruella didn’t wade so much in familiar waters, it’s easy to appreciate how it takes the franchise into new directions. The familiarity is somewhat necessary since the plot is a busy one. At times it’s a coming of age story, a heist film, a tale of business intrigue, or even a thriller. Cruella has so much going on that it feels like it shouldn’t work, and despite it being over two hours long, the pacing rarely drags, Gillepsie keeping a consistent tone that makes the ever-changing plots feel cohesive. It’s a delightful world to stay in, especially given the future installments teased at the ending. Hopefully, the risks taken here are indicative of a trend, not just a passing fad.
Cruella hoodwinks itself into theaters this Friday, May 28.