Our Take: 4 Stars
The cadre of live-action remakes produced by Disney in the past decade have generally been received with lukewarm approval.
These films, which include notably “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Mulan,” are all well-produced and visually stunning, but fall short in terms of plot and characterization.
“Cruella,” Disney’s latest, is no exception. The film, which stars Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Emma Thompson (“Nanny McPhee”) offers an origin story for one of Disney’s most iconic villains, along the lines of 2019’s “Joker” but with a healthy dose of humor and lots of canines thrown in.
“Cruella” follows the evolution of its title character, Estella (played in her youth by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland and in adulthood by Stone), from a firecracker young grifter looking to make a name for herself in the punk rock fashion scene of 1970s London to the fashion-obsessed dog hater that we all know and love.
Lovers of 1961’s “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” will appreciate the many Easter eggs, references, and character tie-ins found in “Cruella.”
The inciting event for Estella’s eventual downfall is the loss of her mother at a young age under suspicious circumstances.
From there, Estella finds herself alone in London, in the company of two sidekicks who will be familiar to anyone who grew up watching the original film: Jasper (Joel Fry, “Yesterday) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, “Richard Jewell”). The beginning of the film finds the three of them pulling off a series of elaborate petty heists that take advantage of Estella’s knack for costuming.
Everything changes when Estella encounters Baroness von Hellman (Thompson), a renowned fashion designer who becomes first Estella’s mentor and then her nemesis.
The Baroness’s cruelty, narcissism, and undeniable panache fosters Estella’s genius, and the desire for revenge that she incites in Estella leads the latter to new peaks of genius—or madness.
Thompson’s Baroness is scathingly funny and delightfully hateable as she parallels Estella’s ascent with a spiral into insanity and homicide.
Like its predecessors, “Cruella’s plot is shaky. With a runtime of over two hours, the film is just a little too long, and its hyper-produced cinematic gimmicks come at the expense of a well-rounded story.
After dragging in the middle, the movie wraps up with a slap-bang-boom climax of improbable events that, while entertaining, slot into place a bit too tidily and feel rushed in comparison to the rest of the movie.
As “Cruella” depicts the dubious girlbossification of its title character, it never fully examines why Estella needed a redemption arc or how this version of her ties in with the infamous villain of the original movie (although the now-confirmed Cruella 2 might help with that).
But nevertheless, “Cruella” is fresher, funnier and glitzier than Disney’s other remakes. It is darker than its predecessors, but only dark enough to be different without losing its self-awareness.
The film is a visual masterpiece, with an abundance of immaculate shots and colors and graphics that give a stylish twist to its punk rock setting. The soundtrack, which includes songs by the Bee Gees, Nina Simone, Queen, and others as well as an original song by Florence + The Machine, is one of the highlights of the film, and contributes to its playfully sultry atmosphere.
The costuming alone makes “Cruella” well worth the watch. Fashion is an inextricable part of the film’s plot, and designer Jenny Beavan delivers with a host of extravagant gowns for Estella and the Baroness that are each more outrageous and spectacular than the last.
Some of the most memorable moments in the film occur as the rivalry between the two leading ladies escalates via increasingly flamboyant outfits.
The costuming also illustrates Estella’s transformation from spunky petty criminal to psychotic sophisticate, and helps to tie in her character visually to the original Cruella.
But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is Emma Stone’s performance as its lead character. Stone seems to be in her element, and her Estella is gutsy and unapologetically self-absorbed, without losing Stone’s signature elegance. As Estella, in her own words, “goes a bit mad,” Stone still manages to maintain the more likable side of her character, and the viewer can’t help but pull for her even if she’s rather horrible. Opposite Thompson’s devilish Baroness, one gets the impression that both Emmas are having the time of their life.
“Cruella” is certainly not a perfect movie, but it doesn’t have to be. The messaging might be a bit weak and the plot somewhat thin, but the production, design, and cast more than compensate. As long as you don’t think about it too hard, it’s a wildly entertaining watch, and one of the most delightful villain origin stories since “Wicked.”
“Cruella” is available to stream now on Disney Plus.