Disney Movie Review: Cruella
Twenty-five years ago, Disney tried something out of character. The studio created a live-action version of a classic animated movie.
That sort of thing has become status quo today, but 101 Dalmatians functioned as the proof of concept.
Fast forward to 2021. Disney has tried something new, a mostly sympathetic origin story for one of the most despicable villains ever.
Does this daring approach pay dividends? Surprisingly, the answer is yes!
The Classic Disney Approach
I’ll start with a mild spoiler here. Please skip to the next section if you don’t want to know anything about it before watching.
Apparently, Disney uses the same playbook for young villainesses in training as Disney Princesses.
Early in the film, a girl named Estella loses her mother to tragedy. The kindly woman had tried to steer her daughter toward good.
Estella struggles with the desire to give in to base urges, a behavior that gains an identity, Cruella.
Mom doesn’t want Estella to let Cruella out to play, but you can guess how well that works.
The outcome of Estella’s misbehavior leads her to London, where she befriends two boys living on the streets.
The trio turns to theft and proves quite adept at it, helped in part by fluffy dogs named Buddy and Wink.
Honestly, much of your enjoyment of the film hinges on whether you believe Estella’s relationships with Buddy and Wink.
The most recognizable part of Cruella De Vil as a character is that where we see pets, she sees fur coats. She’s the Michael Vick of Disney villains.
After his prison sentence for dogfighting, Vick has since adopted several dogs. Cruella, as a movie, attempts to redeem the title character similarly.
Throughout the film, the story sometimes teases that Cruella will get the better of Estella and turn puppies into coats. It’s…uncomfortable.
Otherwise, the formula in play works well. Estella and some fellow street urchins live as criminal orphans, forming a tight-knit family.
They survive and turn into adults, which is the timeline for most of the movie.
Once Estella achieves adulthood, Emma Stone plays the character, and she’s having the time of her life here. It’s fun to be bad.
A Rollicking Good Time
Cruella borrows liberally from other and, frankly, better movies. I’m not saying that as a negative, either.
When you know something works, use it but put your own spin on it. That’s what happens here.
The movie’s vibe is very much 1960s London. The backdrop feels like Emma Peel’s Swinging Sixties in The Avengers, but I could list like 15 films and TV shows with similar energy.
Most recently, Epix has shown Pennyworth, a Batman prequel about Alfred that’s a spiritual twin to Cruella.
However, the most frequent comparison film is The Devil Wears Prada. That analogy is unmistakable.
After an unlikely series of events, Estella gains employment with Baroness von Hellman, as played by Emma Thompson.
I suspect that Thompson would even admit that she’s aping from Meryl Streep’s performance in Prada. The formula works, though.
An entitled fashionista takes in a decidedly amateurish apprentice, only Estella quickly proves more than a match for her boss.
In fact, Estella sometimes lets Cruella out to play. The Baroness finds her equal parts threatening and captivating.
Splashy colors, decadent clothes, and mood music set the tone for this romp.
Estella behaves awkwardly and dresses demurely. Cruella wears clothes that…well, you know. They’re bright and colorful and vaguely unsettling.
We know Cruella rocks because the English soundtrack drives home the point with selections by Blondie, The Rolling Stones, Queen, and The Clash.
I found myself tapping my toes and singing along throughout the film. Sometimes, films feel manipulative when they do this. See: Suicide Squad.
Cruella finds the appropriate balance of setting the mood perfectly without going too far.
By the way, Florence + The Machine sing the title track, Call Me Cruella, and it’s an instant classic that could win an Academy Award. It’s that good.
The Battle for Estella’s Soul
Disney hasn’t run away from its desire to turn Cruella into a franchise a la Maleficent. The studio has cause for optimism, too.
You may not remember 102 Dalmatians, but it did very well at the box office. Disney believes that Cruella 2 would do even better.
So, much of what happens here works as a setup rather than finality for Estella.
The character fights her inner demon throughout the film but must acknowledge that she has more fun as Cruella.
Her cohorts, Jasper and Horace, support her no matter what. Jasper vastly prefers Estella to Cruella, though.
Horace, as played by the charismatic Paul Walter Hauser, is just happy to be part of the fun. Estella’s his family, and he’s got her back.
I very much like the actor, and he’s perfectly cast here. Along the way, Estella befriends Artie, whose David Bowie homage is unmistakable.
The four of them work together to bring down the Baroness. Therein lies the other essential aspect of the movie.
Disney wants people to find the Baroness so dislikable that we’ll root for Cruella despite ourselves.
Estella wasn’t always evil. Circumstances led her down that path. At least, that’s the conceit here.
The story definitely shows the Baroness to deserve our hate. She’s despicable and deserving of instant karma.
The question becomes how far Cruella is willing to go to dispense justice. Would she destroy the woman? Or kill her? You’ll have to watch to find out.
The Rise of Cruella
Personally, I relished the energy of the scenes when the gaudier version of Cruella faced off against the Baroness.
The story borrows an idea from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to establish Cruella’s fashion sense. It’s pretty great.
From this point forward, I got a distinct Harley Quinn vibe from Stone’s performance.
My wife took it a step beyond that and said she was aping the Joker instead. I can see that, too.
Most importantly, Stone has a blast while vamping as Cruella, which is the whole point here.
If you’re a fan of this Disney character, you’ll love Stone’s take. Plus, Emma Thompson is a Hollywood treasure who is more than up to the task of comedic foil.
When the two of them square off, it feels like a prizefight, the type of PPV we’d all pay to watch.
Along the way, all the iconic elements of the Cruella character receive a backstory. And yes, some dalmatians appear.
Roger and Anita appear as well, although their presences feel a bit tacked on.
I’m saying that as a superfan of Kirby Howell-Baptiste, the actress who plays Anita. She just doesn’t have enough to do here.
If/when a sequel happens, Roger and Anita will have a much more significant presence, I’m sure.
These sorts of quibbles are the only things I didn’t like about the movie, though.
Overall, Cruella demonstrates a confident verve. It sets a vibe that functions as wonderful summer blockbuster escapism.
I don’t expect the film to come anywhere near my top 10 for the year, but that’s because I’m pacing for 150 movies watched in 2021.
I quite like the movie and am extremely happy that I watched it on opening night.
I’m especially pleased with a shoutout to The Thomas Crown Affair that I saw coming but loved anyway.
At the end of the day, it’s a villain vs. villain movie, only you want the devil De Vil you know to win.
I’ve resisted every urge to make 7,000 references to 101 Dalmatians, which was NOT easy for me.
However, I want you to understand that fans of that movie will appreciate the clever tie-ins here. And the costume design is inspired!
Cruella embraces its silly whimsy and never takes itself too seriously. As such, I highly recommend it.
For a second opinion, my wife had ice in her voice when she firmly stated how much she liked it.
After 20 years, I’ve learned to recognize that tone as, “Don’t you dare give this movie a bad review!”
She had nothing to worry about. Cruella is a blast, the best kind of popcorn flick. Disney fans will love it.
I give it an A- because I wasn’t crazy about the ending, the mid-credits scene, or the inferences about puppy harm.
Other than that, Cruella is utterly delightful.