What’s the Story: Estella (Emma Stone) is a young and clever grifter who’s determined to make a name for herself in the fashion world. She soon meets a pair of thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they build a life for themselves on the streets of London. However, when Estella befriends fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), she embraces her wicked side to become the raucous and revenge-bent Cruella.
Hearing Disney was going to make this in what felt like forever sounded like it would never get off the ground, but it looks like we got ourselves a prequel focusing on PETA’s least favorite animated villain, Cruella de Vil. And to be completely honest, I wouldn’t call myself on board with this idea when it was announced. For starters, what’s the point of having movies based on iconic villains when it’s more mysterious wanting to know how they became this way. I don’t want to see a stupid movie about how Hannibal Lecter turned evil. Or if I wanted to see how Darth Vader turned to the dark side, don’t have two installments in its trilogy be mediocre. Another thing is after 2019’s roster of lackluster live-action remakes (Aladdin, The Lion King) and last year’s Mulan proved to be unimpressive, the adult part of me couldn’t care less, especially when we already had a live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians from 1996 with Glenn Close portraying the character that earned her a Golden Globe nomination, as well as starring in its 2000 sequel that I don’t enjoy talking about.
Hearing the early buzz surrounding this briefly showed a boost of confidence that could make for a stylish time in the theater in giving one of the most famous villains in the studio’s catalog with a unique origin story. Though I instantly forgot this is the second time Disney brought out a movie based on a well-known villain in Maleficent. And I won’t lie. I didn’t find Cruella to be a waste of time, surprisingly. This is more in line being one of the more different live-action entries we’ve seen where it would not be a straight-up copy of the original and decide to give this a bit of a darker take without becoming unappealing to the audience it attended to be for.
Do I love me some Emma Stone? Well, she’s been one of my favorite actresses for years and she rarely does anything wrong in my mind. Though I was nervous seeing her play a villain as well as not knowing if she could pull off a better performance than what Glenn Close did 25 years prior, and I have no shame in saying Stone is better as Cruella since certain moments I even forgot it was her on-screen. Why I think this she radiates almost every scene she carries when she starts as Estella to transforming into her alter-ego Cruella, doing so without being over-the-top and halfway feeling some kind of sympathy from her. It started questionable if Stone was going to pull it off, but I didn’t have to think twice as the film continues while going along in realizing she gets to flesh out and have fun with his role. Even better is Emma Thompson as the Baroness, who almost steals every scene she’s in. Thompson’s performance gives off the impression of the boss you completely admire but knows she the worst person you’ll ever interact with. Seeing two Oscar-winning Emma’s going head-to-head in the same scenes was something I never thought I needed with this mentor-student relationship, but here we are.
Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl) is no stranger to giving the villain the spotlight, and I enjoyed how he still incorporates that genuine funny humor that doesn’t take away from its darker moments. Some of the funniest moments can be thanks to the pairing of Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry as thieves and Estella’s friends Horace and Jasper. Unlike the other live-action remakes that might rely heavenly on the CGI spectacle of it all, the story takes it to a grounded approach in bringing this world to life, even though I’m not sure how the budget is $100 million. Just the style and look is how I would imagine what this villain could be in this era, and I found Gillespie behind the camera pulled off this unexpected energy this needed in what doesn’t look like a Disney movie on the surface. When I watched the trailer, it’s easy to assume this would be made out to be a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Joker, but this is more similar to the former since it takes place in the fashion world and Thompson is Meryl Streep to Stone’s Anne Hathaway. Comparing this to Joker and thinking this would end up becoming Disney’s answer to that feels pointless because they’re vastly different from each other, and I’m pretty sure this one won’t have an abundance of people saying it’s garbage repeatedly.
From a production and costume design standpoint, who would’ve thought it was going to be a massive highlight of the film aside from the performances? The production design is amazing. Even as a guy, I’m always going to appreciate movies when it has cool fashion, and this is no exception with costume designer Jenny Beavan crushes it with clothing that fits well during its setting and inside the plot, especially with Cruella’s dresses that scream her name. Let’s get an Oscar campaign for these accomplishments because even when a Disney movie might be not memorable, there’s usually a shout-out to its costumes.
As fun as this came to be, certain issues plague Cruella from being a favorite. I’m sure all of us don’t know why this has a runtime of 134 minutes. The first two acts kept my attention on how fast-paced it was carrying, but it goes too long at a point where it certainly drags in parts leading into the third act that should’ve been over about 15 minutes ago. There were a couple of surprises I certainly didn’t see coming, but it might be a bit contrived to others. This is a story that can’t be done the same way as other animated villains, but you can see writers Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romanic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) wanted to make her more interesting for those, like me, who never had a real attachment to the original and hope to find any kind of connection from before to hammer that point in. But even when telling this story, there’s no way of showing her skinning poor puppies to make a coat in I wouldn’t mind seeing more of what it’ll take to make her more villainous, I guess.
The aspect I’ve also been hearing divisive thoughts about was the soundtrack. Since the story takes place in 1970s London, you know you’re going to hearing a ton of hits of the punk rock era. While these are some of my favorite music to listen to, my mixed feelings are towards the fact it did not spread out them when delivering a scene every ten minutes or so. You got your Blonde’s “One Way or Another,” Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” and others, but they already established what we’re seeing and should’ve used more of Nicholas Britell’s score, which should’ve used more. I also think playing “Season of Love” by The Zombies has been used too much in movies that take place in the ’70s.
Even when you think it doesn’t pull everything off the way some expected and makes little sense, this is one I’m sure will get the re-watch treatment when I don’t have to pay $30. The general feeling I was getting while sitting in the theaters was thinking Gillespie and his team wanted to push forward in just differing from everything we’ve been seeing, and it’s a good thing Cruella serves to be. Just when I thought this would put me in the group of minorities who didn’t care for this when it ended, there’s a wicked charm to it I accepted. Being able to see two new releases on the same weekend felt like my usual weekend plans are getting back to normal.
Final Thoughts: To my surprise, I quite liked Cruella a bit more than I thought when walking in. Was it necessary to provide this character with an origin story? Not really. But given the talents of both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson and its killer costume design, this turned out to be one of the more serviceable live-action Disney remakes in the past few years. Whether it’s in theaters or on Disney+ with its Premium Access, I think this is worth checking out for yourselves.