Disney’s continued attempts to mine old IP for new product pays off with Cruella, the Mouse House’s fresh take on 101 Dalmations villain, Cruella de Vil.
It’s almost faddish at this point to bemoan Disney’s tendency to explore their iconic characters (often villains) via live action origin stories. Some critics balk at the idea of reforming baddies. Others lament a perceived lack of originality.
The reality is that so long as there is an opportunity to monetize established characters and brands, these stories will continue to be made. It’s not as though media savvy audiences aren’t aware what they’re signing up for, so individuals who don’t care for Maleficent or Joker need not apply.
The good news is that Cruella, directed by I, Tonya‘s Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, is a surprisingly enjoyable confection that feels on par quality-wise with Disney’s live-action remakes of Cinderella and Beauty & The Beast. It’s age-appropriate for younger fans of star Emma Stone, who mostly manages to nail the titular character’s difficult balance between hero and anti-hero, while the 70s period-setting and it’s very prevalent soundtrack will appeal to older audiences.
Expect comparisons abound to The Devil Wears Prada in this tale of an orphaned girl Estella (Stone) who begins as an apprentice, then graduates to become a foil to The Baroness, a manipulative fashion designer. The film’s true villain is played to perfection with extreme diva flourishes by Emma Thompson, who knows exactly what kind of film she’s in and camps it up appropriately.
This is where the setting (London) and time period make perfect sense: not only is Cruella a rollicking tale of revenge, it’s completely immersed in the wild and sensational mod fashion world, which gives the film its own distinct visual flavour. Costume designer Jenny Beavan‘s dresses certainly don’t hurt; the film features no less than a dozen instantly iconic lewks between its two leads.
The film fancies itself something of a pop-punk anthem, embodied principally in Stone’s transition from demure Estella (with accompanying mousy red wig) to her vengeful alter-ego, Cruella. The latter, naturally, emerges as a contender for the London fashion crown not just because of her audacious attitude, but also because of her give no f*cks tendency to upstage her older rival’s shows in dramatic fashion. One montage features Cruella literally pouring out of a trash dumpster onto the red carpet, while her society debut features a gown that changes colour when lit on fire.
Basically the girl lives to make a scene.
And while watching Cruella and The Baroness trade witty barbs while stomping around in gorgeous fashion be fatiguing (the film clocks in at over two hours), there’s something thrillingly self-aware about the whole enterprise. It’s as though Fox and McNamara knew they needed to assuage naysayers by ensuring Cruella is a fool-proof, feel-good time at the movies.
The result feels on par, in both tone and execution, with a hypothetical female-led Pirates of the Carribbean, particularly Gillepsie’s very assured, verging on flamboyant, direction. Take, for instance, the introduction to Estella’s ideal job at a high-end fashion store, which is visualized in a swooping long take past customers and staff, through hallways and down stairs. The acclaimed director didn’t need to go this hard, but the effort is very much appreciated.
There will undoubtedly be some who find Cruella too long or too stylized; its soundtrack too overbearing or its narrative too “safe” and familiar. After all, this is a film that features a long lingering question about whether Cruella’s Dalmation coat is actually made of real dogs. If you don’t find that resulting knowing wink amusing, a) Cruella would likely pity you and b) this probably isn’t a film for you.
Cruella struts into theatres on May 28, 2021.