In Disney's 1961 animated classic, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, audiences were introduced to one of the most memorable, inherently evil, villains in cinema history with Cruella de Vil. The apparent motivation of the chic, flamboyant, and unstable London heiress is simple, to make fur coats out of Dalmatian puppies!! It seems like a hard corner to turn this devilish designer into someone moviegoers would care to watch.
Director Craig Gillespie, who last helmed the darkly humorous yet heartfelt I, Tonya, takes the iconic villain from its animated inspirations and crafts an origin story of a young woman living outside the realms of good conduct. Cruella, which arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, is simply a fun time at the movies. Gillespie imbues the film with filmmaking and costume style, allows two magnificent actors the opportunity to compose campy and colorful characters, and wraps the entirety in a killer soundtrack.
Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is a troublemaker in the best sense, a curious and rebellious young girl with an appetite for fashion and a hairstyle that matches her bold tendencies. Adult Estella (Emma Stone) narrates her upbringing, which tragically includes the death of her mother (Emily Beecham) and the journey to London into a life of pickpocketing and thievery. She finds a makeshift family with two other orphans, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). But Estella is still drawn to her fashion dreams, and with some help, she finds herself employed and quickly in the limelight working for a ruthless fashion designer known as The Baroness (Emma Thompson).
The first hour of Cruella is an absolute feast for the senses. Gillespie composes the roots of Estella's story like a music video, keeping the camera in perpetual motion while choreographing music needle drops with absolute precision. The Doors, Ike & Tina Turner, Queen, The Clash, Nina Simone, and a show-stopping cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" make appearances throughout the film. It offers unique pacing and presentation that makes the story sizzle with high energy.
Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who is sure to be back in awards consideration after this display, adorns the screen with unique visions of fashion that embody a range of elegance. Whether in a messy shopping window display, with an evening gown that glimmers with life, or in the abandonment of thrown-away dresses from the back of a trash dump truck, it's all so beautiful to watch.
Emma Stone gives Estella a charming attitude, transitioning into more punk-rock aesthetics with every turn of the story. Once Cruella makes her inevitable appearance, new accent and style intact, Stone chews the scenery with absolute glee. She is a joy to watch. On the other side playing, unusually, the film's real villain is Emma Thompson as The Baroness. The cutthroat, unforgiving fashionista may feel sewn from the same cloth as Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada, but Thompson makes the role her unique portrayal. When the actress stares daggers, with three snarling Dalmatians sauntering around her presence, it's hard not to smile at the performance on display.
All the visual bravado hides the narrative flaws, which never makes a villain out of Cruella. Yes, the character grows snobbish and less concerned about the well-being of her improvised family once Cruella takes over, but still, there is a heroic quality surrounding her quest in the third act. While, in a different movie not connected to the 1961 Disney property, this wouldn't be so much of a complaint. But the way Cruella is composed in this film almost eliminates the character seen in the animated movie.
Cruella might have worked better as a story without the ties to the original animated icon. But that doesn't stop Gillespie and the team from making a thoroughly entertaining, crowd-pleasing film.
Movie Score: 3.5/5