The live-action revisiting of Disney properties has been a profitable if ridiculed branch of the company’s massive market share, widely eliciting groans from critics while still getting people to open their wallets wide. Their dreary reputation is largely earned; most are unimaginative rehashes of existing properties tweaked only to fit in better with modern sensibilities. Capturing the charm of the originals has proven elusive (2015’s Cinderella being the exception) and the few unique takes have fallen flat (this exception being 2016’s Pete’s Dragon). So when a live-action origin story of the puppycide lusting bad gal from 101 Dalmatians was announced, it was met with a frown and tightly crossed arms by many. We grumps wouldn’t be swayed by the flashy casting of ace actor Emma Stone, nor would we be suckered into hoping for something idiosyncratic by the hiring of I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie. So when Cruella turned out to be a right jolly romp, we had to sheepishly admit that we shouldn’t have closed ourselves off so tightly.
While not hitting the high marks of the best live-action Disney movies, Cruella succeeds because it abandons the sketch we had of the deliciously reviled character and strikes out on its own. Gone is the bluntly wielded power, the animal murdering, and even (for a time) the black and white hair. In its place is an orphaned thief with an eye for style and the unassuming name Estella. When her friends get her in the door at a high-end fashion store, she leaps at the opportunity to go straight and become a true designer, and eventually that ambition brings out Cruella.
So basically it’s a girl boss movie, but one that’s honest about what it takes to reach the upper echelons of an industry regardless of your gender (i.e. you have to be pretty evil). It has fun with the dastardly origin story, embedding itself amid the fashionable rebels of 1970s London and generally going big any way it can.
The main deliciousness, at least for someone like me who couldn’t pick out a pencil from a pleated skirt, is the film’s big bad, the ultra-evil head of the company Cruella works at with the requisite theatrical name The Baroness. Demanding, sharp, and completely unconcerned with other people’s well-being, she’s played with style by Emma Thompson, and the push-pull between her and Cruella is the crux of the film.
All that sets up the film to be loud, boisterous, and dare I say camp, which Cruella constantly flirts with becoming but never quite seizes. That’s the problem with the movie: it is flashy and idiosyncratic and loud, but it’s not enough of any of those things. We’ve all seen Thompson do camp (I particularly love her turn in Beautiful Creatures), and it doesn’t seem outside Stone’s range. To see those two build to a truly garish showdown would’ve been glorious, but instead the movie finds a groove and stays there, repeating its joys instead of compounding them. At over two hours long, this makes the movie feel bloated in a way it actually isn’t. They just needed to withhold a bit early on and shove the ending even further into absurdity instead of hitting us with on-the-nose needle drops every five minutes.
But even repeated, the elements are fun to behold. The ‘70s setting means bold outfits of both the high fashion variety Cruella and The Baroness design and of the punk/glam looks the supporting/background characters flash. Leading the latter is a store owner turned Cruella co-conspirator named Artie (John McCrea), who waltzes through the movie like he’s unaware he’s a supporting character (as great ones do).
Estella/Cruella’s main backup are two young men she grew up with, fellow orphans Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Hauser gets stuck with a broadly comedic role and an eyepatch-wearing dog (seriously, how did this not go full camp?), which he handles with a gusto the part doesn’t really deserve. That the character becomes tiresome is a symptom of the rut this movie gets in and is made even more annoying by the insistent use of poorly CGI’d dogs for even the most basic of tricks. Fry gets the deeper, more dispirited role as the one person advising Estella not to become Cruella, and his balking at her increasing cruelty is a welcome reminder of where she’s actually headed. Other nods to the 101 Dalmatians world we know and love pop up occasionally, the only one of note being the chronically underutilized and brilliant Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling.
Really, though, this movie takes as much from The Devil Wears Prada as 101 Dalmatians, spending most of its time with Cruella/Estella battling a cruel boss, being sucked into her methods, and befriending the boss’ Mark-Strong-for-Stanley-Tucci right hand. Then there’s the general sense that everyone involved is punching below their weight, and when their skill shines bright and clear, the kind you rarely get in this sort of middlebrow fare, it’s moments of pure radiance. Prada had it in that unfurling speech from Meryl Streep. Cruella has it in the moments Stone falls back on the character beats that lead Estella towards darkness. Did we need to understand why these women are so unflappably, hideously cruel? No, they could’ve remained caricatures and still been beloved parts of pop culture, but we’re lucky enough to get explanations that feel right.
Release: available in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong