A live-action girlboss reboot for Disney’s Dalmatian Universe
Nobody’s evil anymore—just misunderstood. The flashy-brashy origin story ‘Cruella’ turns Dodie Smith’s canine-hating postwar villainess into a scrappy 1970s underdog, and details every who/what/where that we never cared to know. Her real name is Estella, first of all, and she literally came out of the womb with her famous two-toned pompadour. That little private-school troublemaker also had no father and an adoptive mother named Catherine (Emily Beecham), who meets an untimely death due to, yes, killer dalmatians. Ohhh, so that’s why she hates those dogs, right? Actually, no, since—spoiler alert—the movie ends with her having some monochromatic spotted hounds as pets. Wait, what?
Look, don’t worry about those back-story contortions. Cruella de Vil is just a bad-bitch glamourpuss. Deal with it. Disney wants an edgy girlboss IP reboot and it’s going to get it, even if that means trashing the legacy of its charming 1961 animated hit 101 Dalmatians (not to mention its loopy 1996 live-action reboot). So out with the bony, chain-smoking, puppy-killing fur fetishist and in with the couture-wrapped avenging angel. It’s image rehab for their Dalmatian Universe.
Oscar-winner Emma Stone is happy to oblige, playing the skunk-coiffed schizo with a sneering wink. And Oscar-winner Emma Thompson offers a delicious assist as the Baroness von Hellman, not the heir to a mayonnaise fortune but a fabulously successful and truly psychopathic fashion designer circa 1975. “Born brilliant. Born bad. And a little bid mad,” Cruella says about herself, yet another boast in a string of self-congratulatory brags. She’s her own emotional fluffer. The Baroness resents the upstart but kind of relishes the competition. “I’m intrigued,” she says at one point. “And that never happens.”
Emma and Emma are delightful nemeses, both of them archly sarcastic in dueling posh accents. Thompson is inevitably the superior scene-stealer, since that native Brit knows only too well how to send up her country’s fatuousness. And Stone’s faux-AbFab pouty put-on, though no match, is actually perfect for her split-personality role as an upstart fashionista. Cruella has the most fun with the Baroness, while alter ego Estella (disguised as a plain-Jane redhead) plays the terrified sycophant assistant. Her talent shows through, though, with design ideas that the Baroness is only too happy to poach in between her 9-minute, cucumber-masked power naps.
CRUELLA ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Dana Fox, Tony McNamara
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong
Running time: 134 mins
Pity that the rest of this overlong, over-plotted movie doesn’t always pit the two of them together. Estella’s early years fly by in a busy, shallow flurry that, while killing off her mom, also introduces useless school friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). She comes back as a peripheral adult with peripheral purpose. Estella survives her childhood trauma by making a new family with street urchin brothers Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Yes, Cruella’s dopey henchmen from the original story are now her surrogate siblings. Jasper’s the moral conscience of the put-upon trio, while Horace makes a play for Bob Hoskins’s crown as the gruff-but-lovable pudgy curmudgeon. They teach her grifts, which I suppose is how Cruella gets comfortable with felonious transgressions. She’s a rule-breaker! She’s a girlboss! A bad bitch!
The film’s best moments are when Cruella runs amok, pulling off brazen guerilla fashion shows that keep upstaging the Baroness with her post-mod, protopunk designs. One of the many standouts is a garbage-dumpster stunt where Cruella emerges from a pile of rubbish and makes her getaway in an outfit with a fantastically trashy train. Another involves her standing on the Baroness’ car and trapping her in it with an enormous crimson dress. The Future, announces the spray-paint makeup masking Cruella’s eyes. It’s every aging trendsetter’s worst nightmare.
Craig Gillespie directed this industrial confection with some of the electric verve he brought to I, Tonya, his previous and far more nasty film. It makes sense to enlist the filmmaker who repositioned that early-’90s ice-skating meanie as a victim of circumstance, since Disney clearly wants to make Cruella the hero of her own story. Of course she’s a hoot, but her Satantic panic is now officially purgatorial. “It’s spelled devil but it’s pronounced DeVil,” says Horace about Cruella’s signature ride, a hybrid 1974 Panther De Ville by way of a 1936 Alvis Drophead Coupé and a 1931 Bugatti Royale. She’s got the look, but she’s far from fearsome. The movie’s soundtrack, a jittery jumble of classic pop-rock, from Supertramp to ELO to Blondie to Bowie, climaxes with the inevitable and frankly wishful-thinking strands of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” If only.