“Normal is the cruelest insult of them all,” says the title character in The Walt Disney Empire’s latest live-action retcon, and it’s a fate the film works hard to avoid. As a prequel to the 1961 animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the 1996 live-action movie 101 Dalmatians, Cruella focuses on the early days of the studio’s most despicable villain outside of Mary Poppins. (You know it’s true.) A big, stylish, rhapsodic adventure, the film explores the events and choices that shaped young Cruella de Vil before she grew up to acquire a bloodthirsty desire for skinning dogs and puppies. It doesn’t really succeed on the prequel front, but Cruella still stands on its own as an energetic, entertaining, and atypical comedy.
Young Estella watches in horror as “vicious” Dalmatians knock her mother off a cliff to her death, and with no living relatives to care for her she runs off to London on her own. The child quickly befriends two fellow orphans, and a decade later the three are thick as thieves. They actually are thieves and con artists, but while Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are content looking for the next angle, Estella (Emma Stone) hopes to go legit and become a fashion designer. She finagles a job in the employ of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a famed and feared designer, but Estella’s goals change when she learns some harsh truths about fashion, family, and fate. Goodbye Estella, hello Cruella.
Black and white be damned, Cruella is a loud, colorful war-cry about being true to yourself in the face of adversity and dismissal, for both better and worse. Its themes on individuality and finding beauty in the unconventional grow murkier by the minute — a long journey as the film is a bit overstuffed at 134 minutes — but between frames dripping with style, a barrage of needle drops (Queen, Blondie, The Bee Gees, The Clash, and many, many more), and the wonderfully wicked pairing of the two Emmas, it’s a fun romp through London’s streets circa the 1970s.
The script’s multiple cooks are evident as the film tries to deliver a villain’s origin story informed by the UK punk scene and seen through the shared lens of both The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Joker (2019). The former of the two movies isn’t surprising as that film’s writer (Aline Brosh McKenna) worked on early drafts of Cruella, but the latter? Well, it’s just good business sense to model yourself after a billion-dollar hit. Writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara are the two credited with trying to wrangle all the pieces together, a mixed bag more often than not, and they succeed best at setting the scene and creating fodder for the cast and director Craig Gillespie to explore on screen.
Cruella is a Disney movie, so the CG use is ubiquitous — London’s cityscape, digital backdrops, CG dogs — but it works more often than not to help create the illusion of a lively world. Fittingly for the character’s interests, design and style sit at the forefront of the visuals in both the extravagant costumes and precise nature of the architecture. The Baroness’s factory, in particular, feels inspired by the covered passages of Paris while the lead trio’s loft leans more Bohemian, and the former’s estate ups the ante across the board with a lavish interior playing host to impeccably crafted costume balls. Occasional CG marring aside, the film looks fabulous.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it shines brightest in its casting. Stone has rarely been accused of being a sedate performer, and it’s an adjective that won’t be thrown her way this time around either as she unleashes her character with wild abandon. Thompson meets her beat for beat, albeit with a bit more class in her deviousness, and the two are a delight both apart and together. Hauser deserves praise, too, as one of the few supporting players to truly hold their own against the Emmas — he’s saddled (again) with being something of a doofus, but Horace is no less sweet or funny for his broadly comedic hijinks. Other characters don’t fare quite as well, including Jasper, John the Valet (Mark Strong), and Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a childhood friend of Estella’s who’s now a journalist. All three actors do good work, but they’re given very little to do aside from supporting morally iffy leads.
Far less successful is Cruella‘s endgame attempt to retcon one of Disney’s most hated villains. Unlike Maleficent (2014), which used its prequel/sequel hybrid approach to explore the “evil” witch by way of cause, effect, and misunderstanding, Cruella doesn’t want viewers thinking she’s a villain at all. Antihero is the angle here, and while joking references are made to dog-skin coats, there’s no suggestion she’d ever consider such cruelty. It leaves an odd disconnect between this film and the character’s known trajectory later in life, and despite the film’s final scene offering a direct but innocuous link to those later stories, the result is a film that ultimately feels a bit hollow. As he did with I, Tonya (2017), Gillespie keeps his troubled lead front and center and even has her speak directly to the audience via voiceover, but what worked for a deranged blue-collar Olympic hopeful can’t find a grip with a fictional dog killer.
“There’s lots more bad things coming, I promise,” says Stone’s Cruella early on, and it’s clear that the movie very badly wants viewers to sympathize with her. It’s difficult to do so knowing where this character goes next — again, for the cheap seats, she grows up to become a wannabe dog killer, which is just one step removed from serial killer — and it’s not helped by efforts to make viewers think otherwise. Cruella is ultimately a fun enough revisionist take on an irredeemable character that, try as it might, can’t quite sell its cooler, mellower Cruella. As an actual prequel, it’s a tick-infested mutt of a movie, but as a standalone comedy about a fashion-obsessed, Disney-approved sociopath? It’s a good girl.
Cruella releases in theaters and on Disney+ (with “Premiere Access” for a premium rental fee) on May 28th.