Directed by Craig Gillespie | Screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, Story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis, based on a novel by Dodie Smith | 134 min | Disney Plus Premium
Disney’s two-pronged strategy for new feature films — cannibalizing their classic catalogue — has been wildly successful. There’s no denying it.
The first prong, going back decades, is to remake its beloved and highly recognizable animated pictures in live action, as they did with 101 Dalmatians (1996), with Glenn Close as the fur-loving fashionista villain, Cruella de Vil. That picture even begat a sequel, 102 Dalmatians, in 2000. Recent remake box-office hits have been a mix of live action and bleeding-edge CGI, like The Jungle Book (2016) and The Lion King (2019).
The other, more precise and maybe surprising prong, is to create live-action origin stories for a few of Disney’s most famous antagonists — witness the success of Maleficent (2014), the Angelina Jolie-led live-action Sleeping Beauty prequel, and its follow-up, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019).
That’s what they’ve done with Cruella, giving us a backstory for that nasty lady who wanted to turn all those Dalmatian puppies into a fur coat. For the most part it’s a lot of fun, with most of the credit going to the ever-watchable Emma Stone sinking her teeth into the lead.
The storytelling challenge with this movie is to locate the sympathetic quality in an iconic character who we all love to hate. Even with her younger, more innocent self, we know that one day she’ll break big and bad. Disney’s walking a fine line to not make being evil seem like too much fun, and they do it by turning Cruella into Estella, giving her a tragic childhood backstory and a dollop of relish enacting a mission of righteous revenge.
Her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), is always trying to accentuate the positive when Estella is a child (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), but E gets into trouble when the kids at her posh school make fun of her black-and-white hair. Estella ends up going it alone to London where she grows up as a street thief and self-taught fashion designer (!) with the help of fellow grifters, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
This set-up feels stuck in first gear, even with Stone’s marvellously droll voice-over to carry us along. Things pick up mightily once Stone takes over the role in 1970s London — cue the spectacular costumes, stylish camerawork and editing, classic pop and rock needle-drops, and Estella’s rapid embracing of her Cruella persona. Enter dragon lady designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson) for whom Estella ends up working. Yes, this segment is plainly inspired by The Devil Wears Prada with added fairytale iconography and Thompson convincingly vibing Streep-as-Miranda Priestley with added psychopathy.
But, of course, there’s a mystery in Estella’s past that’s connected to her present day, and it won’t take you long to figure it out. It prompts the full flowering of Cruella, a passel of guerrilla fashion pop-ups and perfectly planned heists with canine collaborators — a convincing mix of CGI and actual doggie thesps.
The generously stuffed midsection is the most fun part of the movie, when Cruella executes a brilliantly dastardly plan in a flock of outrageous frocks. Along the way she invents goth and punk.
As far as her inherent evil goes, the key here is no matter how bad Cruella gets, The Baroness is much worse. When Cruella finds a measure of mercy in her heart — making peace with her found family, Jasper and Horace — she gets to be the hero of her story. That’s one way to do it.
Helping things move along are Mark Strong as the mysterious John the Valet, Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling, the photographer and writer who covers the London fashion scene, and John McCrea as Artie, a Portobello Road fashion boutique owner and designer with a Bowie-esque style.
All said, despite the slow start and a certain amount of predictable plotting, Cruella is more fun than a multiplicity of spotted firehouse dogs, it looks great, and Stone is a delight in the lead. This blockbuster-in-the-making deserves the biggest screen you can see it on.