Origin stories of familiar material can fall into a familiar routine of forced easter eggs and contrived motivations. Craig Gillespie’s Cruella falls into many of those traps, but is elevated by an undeniable style and a commanding lead performance by Emma Stone.
Stone stars, not as Cruella De Ville, but as Estella Miller, an orphaned child with an eye and passion for fashion design. Before she can enter the real world of design, Estella gets by performing thievery and grifts alongside her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). On her birthday, her friends gift her a job at a fashionable department store, but she can’t rise above being the cleaning lady.
One day, she drunkenly redesigns the front window which catches the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who takes her on as one of her designers. Under the Baroness’ tutelage, Estella begins to make inroads in the fashion world while uncovering more and more about her past and how it relates to the Baroness. All the while, Estella grows increasingly deranged as her personality inches ever closer to her famed alter ego.
The film establishes an interesting backstory for Estella/Cruella early on and positions her story as one worth telling. The atmosphere and setting are so well built, you frequently forget this is the story of a villain. Not to mention, the Baroness is shown to be so heinous and unlikable, that no viewer would rightly side with her. Speaking of that atmosphere, the film is set in 1970s London. And just in case you didn’t know that already, every hit pop song that suits the needs of the scene will pop up to remind you.
Stone is the rock on which this film stands. She is obviously having a blast with the character, but shows a penchant for swings of cruelty and backhandedness. Her on-screen persona has been cultivated as a ray of sunshine that the presentation of a darker persona feels like a big risk. But, her solid characterization and full-bodied energy light up the screen, despite how dark her appearance may seem. She has a long monologue near the two-thirds mark of the film that stands as one of the best scenes she has ever performed.
Fry and Hauser both play off Stone well, with Hauser once again proving once again how no one plays a big, lovable dumb guy quite like him. Fry gets to be a bit more complex, acting as the angel on the shoulder of Cruella, while still providing the support she needs. Fry smartly plays his conflict about Cruella’s increased cruelty with a mix of brotherly disappointment and romantic regret. Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and John McCrea also perform well in their limited supporting roles.
One of the film’s problems is the Baroness. Thompson is having a great time with the character, but there is nothing inherently enjoyable about her character. She has thousands of bodyguards and hangers-on, but no one likes her and she shows no sign of any sort of regret. While the film has been posited as a The Devil Wears Prada rehash, this is where the product differs. Meryl Streep’s “villain” of that film was shown to have a complex life and emotions and regrets. Thompson’s Baroness is completely sociopathic and never has anyone rooting for her. She is a complete villain to root against.
The film is such a visual treat with the extensive fashion collections and set designs, apparently other parts got left in the cold. The film features a number of scenes with dogs, be it dalmatians, Cruella’s pet terrier Buddy or the one-eyed chihuahua named Wink. My guess is 90% of the dogs are CGI, mostly due to undue stress being placed on a dog in a certain situation, but sometimes a CGI dog is sitting on a park bench next to a character. I found the whole thing distracting.
Additionally, origin stories and reboots feel the need to shoehorn in unnecessary stepping stones to the popular IP. Despite the film serving as an origin to 101 Dalmatians‘ villain, it feels the need to include the beginning of every plot point that leads to that film. It’s not just Jasper and Horace, it’s Roger and Anita, it’s Pongo and Perdita, it’s a dalmatian coat and it’s everything. No stone can be left un-turned. These elements extend the already two hours plus runtime.
While probably too dark for children and too referential for adults who loved the cartoon, Emma Stone’s lead performance lifts Cruella above the dredges of live-action Disney remakes and origin stories. I just wish they had left a little to the imagination.