Disney hasn’t shown any signs of stopping when it comes to live-action adaptation, but it has started shifting gears to more original stories. While we all know Cruella de Vil as the mean woman who is trying to capture and literally skin 99 puppies, in the latest Disney live-action, Cruella gets a backstory. As a film, it’s filled with stunning fashion, an amazing soundtrack, and a past that is apparently supposed to make us like her and be okay with the whole skinning puppies bit.
Starring Emma Stone in the titular role, Disney’s Cruella is directed by Craig Gillespie (of I, Tonya fame and boy does it show) from a screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis. The film also stars Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, and Mark Strong. As a film, it tells the story about the rebellious early days of the legendary and infamous Cruella de Vil. Set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, and fit with the style to match, Cruella follows a young grifter named Estella, a clever and creative girl determined to make a name for herself with her designs.
Through a series of unfortunate events, she befriends a pair of young thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they are able to build a life for themselves on the London streets. A found family built on surviving, the trio represents the strongest part of the film and if you remember the animated movie, adapt the henchmen element well with a little heart at the center. Then, one day, Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman, a fashion legend who is devastatingly chic and terrifyingly haute. But their relationship sets in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous, fashionable, and revenge-bent Cruella—a side she has done her best to try and repress, just like she was taught.
To start off, two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan is responsible for bringing quite possibly the most stunning costumes of the year so far. The backbone of the notorious villain is that she is all about fashion, and Beavan’s work on costuming takes us there. She takes us to London in the 70s, showcases experimental gowns, and embraces the punk aesthetic perfectly, and balances it against a haute couture elegance that sets the tone for the film. The costumes take on a life of their own and become a vital piece of storytelling that gives the film its strength. But while the opulence of the costumes meant to be centerpieces is expected, the detailing for the everyday outfits, the street fashion, the small ruffles on a man’s shirt, or the patterns of the 70s.
Additionally, Cruella’s soundtrack is amazing. It pulls you into 70s London and perfectly fits the elements of the film—heist, revenge, and camp. In fact, each classic 70s song fits perfectly with each moment they are used. None better than the film’s final song. Whether it’s in moments of fashion or moments of determined drama or campy break-ins (and breakouts), it all just works. But pulls it all together are the character performances. As a villain among villains, Thompson’s Baroness is phenomenal. Thompson steals every scene with a dry wit, command of the screen, and a ruthlessness level as high as her hairdo. Each of the actors delivers great performances, playing their roles and tropes excellently. Stone is visually striking and hear aesthetic, both in fashion and presence fits directly to time. Every visual of Stone as Estella and Cruella is striking. That said, Stone’s accent undercuts a lot of her performance when she’s acting opposite actors with real accents. You can tell the work she is putting into an accent that should feel effortless.
But after all of this praise, the film suffers because it is called Cruella. Had this been a film that is a truly original story it would hold power. But instead, it’s attempting to make a woman who wants to kill 99 puppies and make them into coats empathetic. In fact, this film continues the trend that pushes the narrative that bad lives justify bad deeds and aims to turn villains into heroes. As many jokes as there were online about Cruella being Disney Joker, they weren’t far off. Only now, it’s the girlboss narrative that has been done to the point of becoming its own meme. The evil deeds are okay because she’s just a woman making it in the world? Her being a complete narcissist and terrible to the people around her because she’s a woman claiming her power? Yeah, I think not. In many ways, this film is “I, Cruella” and while that makes for a technically good film, it hurts it overall, because I just can’t root for her. I mean, even the film’s ending just doesn’t sit well given what we know our main character turns into.
That said, I can’t take anything away from Gillespie for doing what he does best, but tied to a Disney universe, it’s just hard. In fact, I keep asking myself how much darker and deeper the film could have been if not tied to Disney—and in a film with murder attempts, actual murder, and a whole bunch of narcism, that’s saying a lot. But with the focus being sympathy for Cruella, it just falls flat. While I’m sure people will liken it to The Devil Wears Prada, the only comparison is the fashion, because the lessons learned in that movie are well above anything attempted here, and I thought we all understood that Miranda wasn’t the real villain of that film already.
From the start, Cruella makes a statement by having Estella narrate her childhood which includes a line about challenging the world and her mother knowing this and holding her back. I get it, the world is hard for women, but at the same time, I find it hard to believe that this is the character to push that narrative with given her history and well, her endpoint. But aside from that issue, the film is two hours and 16 minutes long. And while its pacing is good, it does suffer from exposition that isn’t terribly necessary and could have been told in a tighter timeframe, with the third act dragging.
Overall, it’s hard to rate Cruella. I like it, but I also have issues with it, and the largest is that it’s about Cruella, which is hard to get around because the film doesn’t clearly address the Clifford-sized problem of it all. Villain apologetics just don’t work, especially when lined up with their bad actions. But even with this, Cruella is just a good film. It’s beautifully made, thoughtfully uses text overlays, doesn’t use popular music too much, and it really showcases Gillespie’s skills. In truth, Gillespie was the perfect choice for this script and my hang-ups can’t get in the way of that.
Disney’s Cruella releases in theaters and Disney Premier Access on May 28, 2021.
Overall, it’s hard to rate Cruella. I like it, but I also have issues with it, and the largest is that it’s about Cruella which is hard to get around because the film doesn’t clearly address the Clifford-sized problem of it all, villain apologetics just don’t work, especially when lined up with their bad actions. But even with this, Cruella is just a good film. It’s beautifully made, thoughtfully uses text overlays, doesn’t use popular music too much, and it really showcases Gillespie’s skills. In truth, Gillespie was the perfect choice for this script and my hang-ups can’t get in the way of that.