One of the most frequent and entirely valid criticisms of Disney’s live-action remakes is that they don’t bring anything new to the table, and are usually content to coast by on a mix of familiarity and nostalgia to appeal to audiences. The storylines, characters, large swathes of dialogue, plot beats and even musical numbers are lifted almost verbatim from their animated predecessors, albeit with a subplot or two being added in to extend the 90 minute runtime of the originals up towards the two hour mark.
Of course, 101 Dalmatians already got the live-action treatment a quarter of a century ago which resulted in $320 million at the box office, a Golden Globe nomination for star Glenn Close and a sequel, so Craig Gillespie’s Cruella tackles the iconic villain’s origins instead. On paper, there’s no justifiable reason to tell the story, but having a blank canvas is the best possible thing that could have happened to the crime caper, because the end result is comfortably one of the Mouse House’s best retellings of a familiar tale yet.
The movie has long since been labeled as ‘The de Vil Wears Prada,’ which might be construed as dismissive, but it’s right on the money. Emma Stone’s Estella loses her mother in circumstances that are much funnier than they were presumably intended to be, giving her a vendetta against Dalmatians from a young age and forcing the youngster to grow up on the streets of 1970s London as an orphan. It’s a functional prologue, one that establishes the Cruella moniker and the character’s dreams to make it in the fashion industry while also setting up the villain of the piece, but the story doesn’t really kick into gear until midway through the second act.
Estella gets an entry level fashion job, but a drunken bout of inspiration sees her recruited by Emma Thompson’s Baroness Von Helmann, and the interactions between the two Academy Award winners are a standout. The Baroness’ motivations become increasingly despicable as the narrative progresses, and she’s an all-round nasty piece of work, but Thompson is unsurprisingly fantastic in the role. She pitches her performance perfectly by leaning into the absurdity of the heightened reality that Cruella occupies, but never veers too far into scenery-chewing or overly broad territory.
However, this is Stone’s movie without a doubt, and don’t be surprised if she’s racking up awards season nominations next year. The Oscars might be out of her reach, but a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy is definitely hers for the taking. Proving herself once again as one of the finest talents of her generation, Stone is an absolute force of nature that’s clearly having the time of her life sinking her teeth into such a showy performance. She nails the emotional beats, and brings a malevolent edge to Cruella while radiating pure star power, carrying the entire film effortlessly with boundless charisma and a twinkle in her eye.
As you’d expect from a pic dominated by two huge bravura turns, the supporting cast tends to get lost in the shuffle. For two thirds of Cruella you may be wondering why an actor of Mark Strong’s caliber was hired to do so little before he eventually makes his presence felt, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Anita Darling doesn’t really resonate much beyond being a plot device and sequel bait. However, Joel Fry makes a decent fist of his fairly one-dimensional role as the supportive-yet-conflicted Jasper, John McCrea indulges Cruella’s penchant for the theatrical as Artie and Paul Walter Hauser provides the bulk of the comic relief as Horace, but it’s something he’s very good at, and the actor generates the majority of the biggest laughs.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Cruella is how markedly different it is to the rest of the Disney remake brigade. Director Gillespie knows his way around a complex protagonist having helmed Ryan Gosling’s offbeat dramedy Lars and the Real Girl along with Margot Robbie’s I, Tonya, and while we’re still talking about a PG-13 family film at the end of the day with multiple animal sidekicks including a dog with an eye patch, it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of what’s essentially a revenge story told from two angles fuelled by grief, jealousy, bitterness and murder.
At 134 minutes, Cruella is a little longer than it really needed to be, and once Stone makes the transformation from mild-mannered Estella to the extravagant Ms. de Vil, the pacing slows to a crawl anytime she’s forced to switch between the two sides of her personality. Some of the big reveals might not resonate with everyone, either, but the whole thing is just so much fun that minor sins can be forgiven. Cruella isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s an altogether different kind of Disney blockbuster that pivots from origin story to heist thriller via family drama and a pastiche of the cutthroat fashion industry with consummate ease, all anchored by a tour de force performance from the leading lady.