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I have not had a reaction to a movie like I did with Cruella in a long time and that was before I had to remind myself that it’s a Disney movie.
When the movie was first announced, many people wrote it off as the next in Disney’s line of rebranded, recycled properties. We got a Maleficent prequel, why not one for the villain of 101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Vil? It tracks, but I was still excited to see an up-close take on a character that has remained in the public’s imagination and is one of the House of Mouse’s most recognizable villains.
What we’ve got here, dear readers, is a film that has bucked the Disney live-action trend and given us something very different. Cruella has some gruelling problems, but buried among them is a visually gorgeous and fast-paced fashion adventure that leans into the darker circles of kids’ storytelling. This was a fun movie to watch.
Here’s what to know about the movie and our overall impressions…
Who is Cruella de Vil?
Before Cruella, there was Estella (played by Emma Stone), a young woman who had always had a flair for fashion and a habit of breaking the rules. After experiencing a terrifying tragedy, Estella flees to London where she befriends and teams up with common criminal brothers Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry).
In a moment of vandalistic expression, Estella and her talent catch the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). While making a name for herself working for the Baroness and uncovering some truths about her, Estella summons a scheme to upstage her and take her place as the darling of London’s fashion scene.
It’s a brilliant plan, even though it may unleash Estella’s darker side in the form of an alter ego called Cruella.
A prequel to 101 Dalmatians?
Going into the film, I was certain Cruella would structure itself as a prequel not to the original animated film, but rather the 1994 live-action adaptation starring Glenn Close. The signs were all there and right off the bat, I have no problem believing Emma Stone will grow old and turn into the laughing, lunatic that was Close.
That’s not really the case. Cruella has a disjointed relationship with the source material and even the specific breed of dog in question. The film is littered with Easter eggs and references that just don’t make sense.
It’s especially the case when it comes to the characters of Roger and Anita (played by Kayvan Novak and Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the two human protagonists of the previous films and who are given unrelated, though still compelling, roles in this one.
It’s nothing that would alienate an audience member from 101 Dalmatians, but it comes off as confusing and at times, reeks of corporate integration.
This didn’t have to be a Cruella de Vil prequel (then you’d have something in the vein of The Devil Wears Prada, one of the greatest movies of all time). But because it is, once in a while Disney will jump in and remind you that it is.
In truth, the film unfolds more like a standalone outing in the greater 101 Dalmatians canon. Sort of like what Todd Philip’s Joker was to the Batman movies. A retelling of a familiar tale. In that light it succeeds but still, for a Disney movie, this was a wild ride!
Beauty that speeds by
Craig Gillespie directed Cruella seemingly while under the influence of the punk rock era’s drug stash. This movie moves at a terrific speed in both its editing and tone and even then, it feels like he was struggling to squeeze in as much as he could into the two-hour runtime (which it didn’t need to be, this movie feels too long).
The speed doesn’t necessarily impact the overall emotions felt throughout the movie as these aren’t particularly relatable characters. And overall, the pacing is kept consistent and there’s always something interesting happening.
The music is a major problem. Adding to the frenzy and plot holes is a soundtrack that just…won’t…let…up. The film is bursting with famous tracks from the 1970s everything from Queen to The Doors. The music tries to do a lot of the heavy lifting in building a cinematic environment but it is also honestly not needed. Nicholas Brittell’s original score is given little time to shine which is a shame.
Instead, the environment is adorned by some of the best costume design you’ll see in a movie this year. Jenny Beaven, who did the costumes for Mad Max: Fury Road has delivered another Oscar-worthy wardrobe. Cruella looks stunning in every scene while also beautifully contrasting Emma Thompson and her more conservative threads.
A dark tale of two Emmas
Speaking of Thompson, she is God’s gift in this movie. This is easily the best Disney villain we’ve gotten in years. The things she is implied to have done are brutal. Her performance is what separates Cruella from other Disney live-action remakes, but it also harks back to a simpler time when the villains were evil for the sake of being evil. She is a joy to watch.
Emma Stone also delivers a top-notch performance — even though the underlying evil that defined her character previously has been watered down. Remember, we’re talking about a woman who planned to skin puppies to make a fur coat.
Nevertheless, her evil streaks are there and the character has to deal with a genuine Two-Face-esque conflict. You can sympathise with Estella for her losses but also then root guilt-free for Cruella. Stone balances those obligations out well.
Cruella review verdict
Technically, I cannot declare Cruella to be a good film. It’s too long. The music is aggressive and far too intrusive. The narrative has so many holes in it that you could mistake it for a moth-eaten Sex Pistols T-shirt.
But it is gloriously fun. Craig Gillespie directs Cruella with an infectious energy that results in a Disney live-action film like none other. It is beautiful to look at thanks to the cinematography and costume design.
It is embodied by delicious performances from both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson.
And while it does not work as a prequel to its source material thanks to its many plot contrivances (and falling victim to the restrictions of the Disney brand), it is a vivid and unique cinematic experience that I’m glad I got to see.
Feature image: Disney/Laurie Sparham