Premise: A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil.
How refreshing is it to finally see a Disney live-action film with some real style to it? Far too often with their live-action remakes, the end result works as an adaptation, but fails to make a convincing argument for its own existence. Beauty and the Beast looked great but was essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the animated classic. The same goes for The Lion King and Mulan. This time around, Disney had the good sense to forego the same route with 101 Dalmatians and explore an origin story by focusing on that film’s memorable villain.
Speaking of wise choices, Disney had enough hutzpah to give the reins to Craig Gillespie, the stylish director of I, Tonya, and he brings a similar bombastic flair to Cruella. The masterstroke of Gillespie’s previous film was less in the story it told, and more in how he told it, as a kind of documentary with talking heads mixed with dramatic footage. Instead, Cruella plays out like a music video (more on that in a minute), a biopic, a heist movie, and so much more. Some of these genre elements work nicely with each other, some a little less successfully. Nevertheless, Gillespie, along with screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, breathe life into a story that could easily feel like a paint-by-numbers account of a villain’s path to infamy.
Of course, it also helps when you have a cast that’s game for anything, and knows when to keep things grounded and when to play to the rafters. Emma Stone inhabits the titular role, and the film posits that Cruella was actually more of a persona, borne out of a good girl that was pushed off the edge by outside forces. Her birth name is Estella, a scrappy, underprivileged Brit with a single mother and a passion for fashion growing up in the pop-punk scene of the late 60’s. After her mother meets an untimely demise at a fabulously posh party, Estella retreats to London where she meets Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Houser) two fellow street urchins. Together, the trio embarks on various grifts, pranks, and misadventures until Estella gets a job performing menial tasks at the upscale boutique for the Baroness von Hellman’s fashion house, in the hopes that she’ll rise up the ranks and design her own pieces. It’s here where Gillespie announces the film as real stylistic piece of work, as he does a singular tracking shot that goes from the glass rooftop all the way through the inner-workings of the store to the bowels underneath with Estella. Think of it as the famous tracking shot from Goodfellas in reverse, as it helps to establish so much about Estella’s status in the world. Now if only Gillespie could retain Scorsese’s same knack for music selection (again, more on that in a minute).
It’s not long before Estella catches the eye of the Baroness (Emma Thompson) and the two form a mentor-mentee/friendly rival relationship. Thompson plays the Baroness as a ruthless, rigorous dictator, the kind of boss who will throw a chair in a tantrum and berate the servant that stands in the chair’s path. The back-and-forth between the two provides some great moments, especially as Estella’s rosy opinion of her begins to sour and Cruella begins to take hold. Estella uses her alter ego to upstage the Baroness, creating a rival avant-garde fashion brand. Gillespie gives these moments the right amount of pomposity for the occasions; they’re over-the-top but authentic, in that you believe that the Baroness feels legitimately threatened.
After this point, the film starts to drag a bit, and I found myself looking at the clock to figure out how much time was left. Cruella is a film that is entirely too long at 130 minutes long and would best be served by cutting it down at least 15-20 minutes. Gillespie tries to drum up some drama between Estella, Jasper, and Horace, but it never feels earnest enough to put their friendship in doubt. The world is vibrant, including an eyeful of wonderful costumes by Jenny Beavan, and some truly elaborate production design from Fiona Crombie. Every scene is full of unique pieces in both regards, and helps to establish the specific, strange setting of the film and the characters that inhabit it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the music choices throughout the film. The soundtrack is full of Brit-rock classics from Queen, The Rolling Stones, Supertramp, and The Clash, but they only help to underline what’s already happening on-screen, rather than complementing the mood. I believe that Gillespie trusts his audience to follow along, but the music choices were too distracting to think otherwise.
Of all the classic Disney villains, Cruella De Vil feels like the most natural choice for an origin story. Not only did the character from the 1961 film have charisma to burn, but surely viewers couldn’t help but wonder what would drive a woman to be so obsessed with puppy fur. The latter half of the equation isn’t exactly solved in Cruella, though I don’t think anyone will leave disappointed by that. And never forget that the film is rated PG-13; there’s surely a PG-version that Disney could have made that would have been a total drag. Thankfully Craig Gillespie and his cast are here to liven things up a bit by remembering to have a little fun.
Cruella will be released in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, May 28.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.