Delightfully camp, and devilishly entertaining, Cruella is family friendly fun.
Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong
Everybody knows that Disney animated classics are typified and remembered as much for their villains as their respective heroes. And, just like the Disney protagonists, everybody has a favourite. Before Disney started adding nuance and moral greyness to their antagonists, like in Moana or Frozen, Disney villains were content to just revel in their own evilness. Characters like Scar, the Evil Queen, Ursula, Jafar – they simply don’t need a tragic backstory, and it almost makes them better that way. Audiences love to see their nefarious impulses and indulge in the vague fantasy of being unburdened by morality the way that the rest of us are beholden in real life. Cruella de Vil, an unhinged, fashion obsessed narcissist with poor spatial awareness, probably didn’t need a reason for being evil but, regardless, that is precisely what Disney is serving audiences via director Craig Gillespie.
Cruella performs upon its titular character the same feat as is achieved in Maleficent – in restructuring the story around the villain and helping the audience to understand just how the evil was formed. Instead of tying itself up in entirely redeeming the character and essentially ripping up the established canon of its partner movie like Maleficent managed, Cruella wisely divorces itself from its source material by serving mostly as a prequel with just a few Easter Eggs and hints as to Cruella’s potential future.
However, Cruella doesn’t exist at the beginning of the movie. Or, at least, not fully. We are introduced to our young villain as wayward child Estella (played with a sufficiently impish nature by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), who is known for pushing boundaries and refusing to conform to the world around her, who tease her for her unusual monotone hair, and her unique fashion sense. Her gradually despairing mother (Emily Beecham) gives these less palatable outbursts a name: an alter ego of sorts, being – you guessed it – Cruella. It’s always great to teach children that one cannot be a three-dimensional human being who occasionally finds themselves out of control but instead play into the duality of a “good side” and “bad side”, because I suppose that’s an easier conversation. One fateful, unfortunate and appallingly CGI’d incident later, though, Estella finds herself unburdened of her mother and orphaned on the foggy streets of London, along with her dog, Buddy, and is caught up in a life of petty crime with urchins Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
Now an adult and played by Oscar-winning Emma Stone, Estella dreams of being a fashion designer while creating delightful disguises for her law-breaking but ultimately unthreatening gang, all the while holding the immense burden of taking responsibility for her own mother’s demise on her shoulders and suppressing her basest urges in Cruella. Soon enough, however, the Baroness (Emma Thompson) wanders into Estella’s life, hiring her after a brazen window display at Liberty reveals her promise. The story then becomes a tale of rivalry between the two women, as the narcissistic, callous and ruthless Baroness becomes the subject of Estella’s revenge. It is through this tête-à-tête that Estella embraces her alter ego, Cruella, and so ensues a series of passive aggressive publicity one-up-manship to make audiences gag and cackle with laughter.
The film really thrives, unsurprisingly, on the scenes that transpire between Stone and Thompson. Both are supremely talented actresses, with Stone lending enough vulnerability to Cruella to not appear one-note, while also convincingly carrying off the characteristic sneering, while Thompson pithily delivers all of the Baroness’ dismissive one liners in a way that would quell even Miranda Priestley into silence. These moments are so successful, in fact, that they likely would have succeeded as a film completely separate from the legacy of Cruella’s character.
There are such brilliantly dazzling sequences, from when Cruella tumbles out of a rubbish truck to be spirited away in a gown created from all of the Baroness’ old collection, to her entire mission to make Baroness a symbol of the past, to a stunning one-shot that explores the interior of Liberty in London, swooping in through the skylight. There is gorgeous attention, as well, on the sumptuous costumes, as the vast majority of the action takes place at a series of costumed balls, and as Cruella comes up with look after look to intimidate her rival, who mainly relies upon others’ talents. It’s a shame that the CGI dramatically lets this down, as the visual language and aesthetic is so strong otherwise, as is the raucously joyful and defiant soundtrack.
Where Cruella falls down, however, is by being not nearly clever, nor daring enough to really match the character Cruella de Vil, despite teetering dangerously close. In making audiences root for the character, they soften her most devious edges, going so far as to suggest that the story that audiences know from 101 Dalmations might be a great fabrication, after all. It would have been more interesting if the film had indeed embraced Cruella’s murderous tendencies and for her character to still appear in the right, though that might have been a little dark for Disney.
Instead, it displaces a lot of what Cruella is known for onto the Baroness, and merely makes Cruella our protagonist by virtue of having somebody more devious to fight against. In another film, this could perhaps be the tale of how, in bringing down a figure that she despised, Cruella in fact became the very thing that she hated. There could have been a poetry in that, in seeing Cruella pushed to the very edge, but the film stops short of having any blood actually on Cruella’s hands, and instead leaves the film on an ambiguous note. It also has some vaguely problematic messages about genetic predisposition to mental illness.
Perhaps the most major storytelling wrinkle in Cruella, however, is that for all of its visual splendour, wonderful performances, anthemic soundtrack and mindblowing plot twists, is that it’s simply too long. Almost episodic in structure, the plot ricochets from one idea to the next, and while all are equally engrossing and entertaining, it simply goes on just that bit too long for it to be comfortable. Some aspects of the storytelling could easily have been streamlined, or the narrative structure fiddled with to maximise tension. If, for example, the film had elected to tell the story non-chronologically, this could have been far more engrossing.
Ultimately, however, Cruella cannot be faulted on its visual spectacle, and its incredibly entertaining ballet to the death between Estella and the foreboding Baroness. Is it a story that necessarily needs to be told? Of course not. Very few stories need to be told, and Disney’s keen eye upon profit has been unerring since its very genesis, and that’s hardly about to change. That doesn’t stop this story from feeling like a breath of fresh air and being a great deal of fun. Insanely over-the-top and hugely dramatic, Cruella is probably the most creatively inspired live-action riff on their quest to remake what must be every animated classic, and hopefully this is indicative of less of a “paint by numbers” approach to their future releases.
Cruella is available to watch in cinemas now, as well as to stream on Disney+ for an additional fee.