Something really strange happened to me while I was watching “Cruella,” the latest animation to live action Disney prequel/remake. Disappointed by Disney’s recent installments in their series of nostalgia cash grabs and not impressed with the trailers for this one, I was fully prepared for “Cruella” to not be a good time. But less than ten minutes in, the movie did something so hilariously shocking, I knew that even if the movie wasn’t good, it was at least going to be interesting. Another half hour in, and I found myself legitimately loving it.
Am I just drunk off of the film’s fantastic 60s/70s (admittedly not entirely period-accurate) rock soundtrack and deliciously elaborate costumes (by Jenny Beavan)? Maybe a little bit. But “Cruella” minimizes the references to the Disney classic it’s based on (that would be the 1961 animated film “101 Dalmatians,” although it could also be its 1996 live action remake starring Glenn Close as our villain, depending on who you ask) and maximizes the campy fun. When the first trailer for “Cruella” dropped, people immediately compared it to another recent villain origin story: “Joker.” On a surface level, that’s a fair comparison. “Cruella” is set in 1970s London and follows the future villain of “101 Dalmatians”- who spends that film wanting to kill puppies for their coats- as she goes from an aspiring fashion designer named Estella (played by Emma Stone) to the manic, revenge-bent woman called Cruella. The catalyst for this change is a woman known as the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who runs one of London’s most prestigious fashion houses. Initially hired to work for the Baroness as Estella, a revelation about her past prompts her to bring out her long-suppressed dark alter ego, Cruella, and upstage the Baroness every chance she gets. Working alongside Cruella are her longtime friends, pickpockets Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
But back to the “Joker” comparison. It’s obvious after watching “Cruella” for a bit (and I do mean a bit—at over two hours long, “Cruella” is much lengthier than it needs to be, becomes repetitive and losing some steam toward the end) that this is not exactly the gritty origin story that Disney’s atrocious marketing campaign for the film appeared to promise. “Cruella” has more of the stylings of a snappy Old Hollywood female-led melodrama, an “All About Eve” with a “Devil Wears Prada” twist. This is due in large part to two factors. The first is that “Cruella” is directed by Craig Gillespie, whose credits include Disney family movies like “Million Dollar Arm” and more adult fare, like his 2017 comedy/drama “I, Tonya,” which told the story of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding. “Cruella” may be a Disney movie, but it leans much closer in tone to the latter film. The other factor is the film’s two leading Emmas. Stone and Thompson lean in to the ridiculousness with their performances, which are over-the-top without overstaying their welcome or coming off as too cartoonish. Stone admittedly does get to show her range much more than Thompson does, who has some great one liners and is utterly ruthless but is ultimately static in terms of character growth. Stone, meanwhile, gets to transform from the sort of awkward and eager to please Estella to the cold and confident Cruella, and she appears to relish the opportunity, playing Cruella sincerely so that she doesn’t come off as a complete caricature.
“Cruella,” in typical Disney fashion, also doesn’t completely leave us with the sense that its titular character is a full-fledged villain. Her desire to potentially kill dogs for their coats is brought up but ultimately side-stepped, leaving us with the impression that Cruella is more mischievous than evil (has Cruella ever, in any iteration, actually killed animals, or is it all just talk?). The approach does work better here than it did with Disney’s “Maleficent” films, however, which ended up softening and redeeming one of the studio’s most famous villains. And as someone who doesn’t feel a need to see villains humanized, or even see the need for their origin story at all, this film walked a neat line between those two different approaches. It’s clear throughout Cruella’s transformation that, while they continue to stick with her, Jasper and Horace aren’t happy with the kind of person their friend has become. She isn’t made out to be someone we should feel like we have to like. There are, however, some things that don’t get explained enough. The assumption is that Estella has a split personality and has been suppressing the Cruella side since she was a child, but this isn’t explored on a deeper level. And then there are things that are overly explained, and these primarily consist of the few clumsy connections to “101 Dalmatians” that the film tries to make. These are the most eye-rollingly stupid parts of the movie, and I’m convinced that “Cruella” might actually have been better had it not been connected to an existing Disney franchise, and had rather just been its own quirky little story about rivalries and revenge in the fashion world. Even the big twist about Cruella’s past is one aspect of the movie you’ll see coming from a mile away. The final act starts to fall apart a bit as it struggles to not only resolve the conflict with the Baroness, but also set up the transition to the stories to come.
“Cruella” does, however, work nicely as a fun heist movie turned revenge tale. I was pleased to find that Fry and Hauser received more screen time (and had a lot more agency) than I thought they would, and they make a good team with Stone. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between the two women escalates to wilder and more unbelievable heights as the film progresses. Gillespie and writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara eschew reality in favor of something more delightfully outlandish than any of Disney’s remakes actually set in realms of fantasy. It’s darkly funny, weird, and occasionally violent in a way that will appeal more to adult viewers than the kids and families who are normally the target audience for these films. Costumes, hair, and music all also come together to portray the differences between the two women. When we first see the Baroness, she’s emerging from a car in a look torn straight from Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” All of her looks are classic 60s. On the first day Estella goes to work for her, the Baroness’ latest line has just been praised for reinventing the A-line. Cruella, on the other hand, comes from the more rebellious 70s culture, and her dark makeup, wild half black/half white hair, and daring gowns that are a spectacle in and of themselves, stand in stark contrast to the Baroness. The Baroness is representative of old traditions, and she fast loses relevance when placed next to Cruella. The fashion scene is more than just a backdrop for the story. It’s fun to see how both women, but Cruella in particular, use fashion as a weapon to get what they want. Fashion gives the Baroness social status and financial power. Cruella uses fashion to deceive, to challenge, to shock, and occasionally to physically intimidate.
“Cruella” still has its issues, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. The lack of diverse casting isn’t unexpected, but it’s still disappointing. I’m sure the casting directors thought they were doing Something by casting a Black actress (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who is a delight) as Anita Darling, but relegating her to the stereotypical role of the Black friend supporting the powerful white character is not a great look. And while it’s fun to see John McCrea as Artie, the flamboyant fashion store owner who helps Cruella create her looks, seeing the “first gay character in a Disney movie” headlines circling yet again is not. These are problems that Disney Studios as a whole have largely failed to improve upon. But as it stands, “Cruella” is a great surprise. It feels like something refreshingly different from a studio that has been relying instead on exact recreations of things that have worked before. Perhaps this is too high praise for something that is still a big franchise film, but it’s rare that I go into a movie expecting to hate it and emerge with the opposite reaction. “Cruella” does, thankfully, break free from the constraints of the series and the studio it stems from to become something a little more imaginative. I’d even go so far as to say that it may be the best of these live-action remakes so far. I’m not saying I want more Disney live-action remakes (I’m a Disney fan but I’ve been over the trend for a while now) or villain origin stories, but a resurgence of campy female-driven stories is something I can get behind.
“Cruella” will be released in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on May 28. Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13.