Disney’s choice to cash in on Cruella de Vil, arguably one of the most problematic villains in their library, and humanize her in an origin movie has always baffled me. Mainly because she’s out to harm animals. She reveled in the suffering of animals and was unashamed by the cruelty of her actions. For a company that is synonymous with the most popular animated critters in pop culture history, the choice to humanize Cruella was very questionable. But having seen the film and how they made everything work to their advantage, I can see somewhat see where their heads are at.
Credit where it’s due, Disney did the assignment and rebuilt the character from the ground up. In classic retcon fashion, we learn that Cruella’s real name was actually Estella. Raised by a kind hapless woman, the young sweet girl develops a knack for defying the norm and personifies it as Cruella. Mom is quick to tell her to keep that mean alter-ego at bay So, she does not screw up her chances at getting good in life. But this doesn’t go well for Estella, as she quickly learns that the only way to survive in a cruel world is to give that cruelty back. Tragedy eventually befalls her mom and she is left to fend for herself in the streets of England. In those streets, she meets two of her closest allies, Jasper and Horace.
Compared to all the other live-action adaptations Disney has ever done, Cruella might be the most fun. Part-fashion show, part-heist film, the movie has a cadence that’s been sorely missing from a villainous character piece like Maleficent. It has a distinct personality that you’ll never find in a movie like Lion King or Aladdin. For one, the movie has some actual edge, which is almost unheard of in a Disney flick. Even Maleficent, whose story and visuals have their darker moments, is still draped in a cloak of high fantasy. It makes some of that darkness distant for the viewer. But for Cruella, the edge feels palpable all thanks to its stylistic approach to a grounded cautionary tale.
Visually, there’s a sleekness to the film that further reinforces its style. Its visual language feels calculated and meticulous without losing its elegance nor its edge. Combine that with the absolutely stunning work of Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer, Jenny Beavan, it plays out like the most entertaining runway show in the best way possible. I mean, just take a look at that fiery ballroom costume unveiling in the trailer. Just imagine seeing moments and works of art like that throughout the film. The film will be the foundation of many cosplayers to come once COVID ends.
Emma Stone has fun as the eponymous character. Her interpretation of Disney’s villain is a lot more complex and subdued than Close’s take which was a more devilish socialite than a tortured artist. As we get to see a pre-Cruella version of the character, there’s a lot more color in Stone’s palette. She flawlessly transforms with precision between the meek submissiveness that Estella carries and the rebellious ethos Cruella lives her life by. She’s a total blast to watch from start to finish.
Opposite Emma Stone is Emma Thompson, who plays a character called the Baroness She is a viciously mean-spirited fashion designer who the young girl takes up as a mentor. Thompson is fun to watch in the role because her stature as an on-screen legend gives gravitas to this original character. The downside is that she doesn’t really get to do much more than acting super snooty and mean, but for what it’s worth, her performance makes for a great foil for Stone’s Cruella.
At the heart of the film are Cruella’s best friends Jasper and Horace, who are played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept Hauser playing a wholesome character after seeing him for years as these despicable people, but it grew on me as the film went on. Jasper and Horace get overhauled in a pretty big way here. Instead of them being just Cruella’s lackeys, they’re actually her friends. Joel Fry does the heavy lifting as the emotional foil to Stone’s Cruella. Together, the chemistry these three characters have is nothing short of endearing.
A glaring missed opportunity in the film is how it relegates Anita Darling to the sideline. That Anita becomes a non-character in the main part of the film despite her being introduced in an early yet definitive time of Estella’s life is a bummer. The characters don’t ever interact in a meaningful way. In a film exploring Cruella’s past, making Anita the anchor to a life she once recognized could have made for some interesting character work.
And then there’s the key task of handling Cruella’s reinvention. The rework is interesting as it departs from all the wickedness associated with the most infamous iteration of the character. For one, Cruella isn’t out to harm animals. In fact, she’s constantly surrounded by furry allies. The movie is quick to establish her fondness for dogs. She gets an adorable sidekick named Buddy and eventually, another furry friend in the form of Horace and Jasper’s dog, Wink. The movie does pay lip service to her tumultuous relationship with dalmatians but even by the end of the film, this version of Cruella ends up as her own thing in the best ways possible. I can’t imagine this version of Cruella ending up like Glenn Close‘s interpretation. I don’t like their choice to put heinous characters in a good light but the changes in Cruella are ones that I can get behind with.
The film’s biggest problem is that it is oftentimes at odds with what it wants to be and what it has to be. By design, the film is made up of varying tones that are constantly vying for control and it results in this haze that prevents it from being truly a great film. The film wants to be this edgy character study in the vein of nihilistic films like Joker but is also aware that it’s a Disney movie and has to have Disney-fied moments of wackiness. It doesn’t ever find a middle ground for these two things to mesh, resulting in a messy tone.
And this movie gets really silly at times. The center plot of the movie has Estella interning for the Baroness while moonlighting as her nemesis in a totally silly Hannah Montana scheme. There are scenes of dogs wearing cute disguises and committing heists. Heck, there are some sequences that feel downright slapstick. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having wacky ideas but when those ideas are trying to engage the audience in a straight-faced way, it feels disjointed. Like, imagine watching The Three Stooges while a song by The Doors plays in the background. It takes you out of the scene and it just doesn’t feel cohesive.
Luckily, with a great cast, diverse soundtrack, and stunning production, Cruella manages to bypass its own confusing DNA by delivering a palatable caper under the guise of a 101 Dalmatians spin-off. With a freshened nuanced take on the character, perhaps this is Disney’s attempt to better the character for a new generation of fans.