Review: ‘Cruella’ (Sympathy for the de Vil)

She’s got Bette Davis laugh.

Born with a distinctive appearance and a refusal to be ignored, Estella (Emma Stone) winds up orphaned and penniless in 1970s London at the beginning of the punk rock music era. Befriending a pair of amateur thieves named Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), the trio makes their way as creative grifters, using their skills — and their pets — to steal anything not nailed down. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer, looking up to the likes of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), an infamous designer whose word in fashion circles is final. When Estella lucks into an opportunity to impress, a series of discoveries pits her against her idol, setting up a showdown that’s expressly winner-take-all.

Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya and the excellent remake of Fright Night) unleashes Disney’s prequel to 101 Dalmatians detailing the rise of one of the Mouse House’s most memorable if ultimately unsuccessful villains. It’s difficult to make a rising villain the hero of their own story without a worthy adversary, provided in this case by the always-reliable Emma Thompson to foil Emma Stone’s ambitions. With a classic rock-of-the-era soundtrack, a very-seventies London setting, and some creative one-upmanship, can a period-piece prequel turn a reliable antagonist into a relatable protagonist without losing anything in translation?

With all due respect to Glenn Close, this “Cruella Begins” is completely owned by Emma Stone. From the opening gothic version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle logo to a tightly edited introduction, Stone appears as the late-teen Cruella-in-training with all the groundwork laid for an entertaining and surprisingly emotional story. The two-hour and fifteen minute runtime blazes by, filled with clever character moments, significant revelations, and fun Easter eggs. For an original story that mines what’s to come to inform what came before, this is Disney’s best live-action attempt to date re-imagining their own iconic animation into something new.

The story works on two fronts: likeable yet mousey Estella battling not to become the wicked full-on Cruella (cue Yoda-esque advice about paths to the Dark Side) and creating a more evil would-be role model in The Baroness. This is a common fiction trope especially in comics fandom, spinning a popular character into less of a villain by introducing a foil who’s even worse. In fact, Cruella does follow the familiar beats of a superhero origin story, but it’s hidden well beneath layers of fashion faux pas, trying to live up to expectations, and Estella’s relationship with her adopted misfit family. Emma Stone’s character-arc transformation from the film’s beginning to its end is like watching a star collapse into a supernova… with Emma Thompson being let off her chain as the triggering catalyst.

The only thing working against this movie — as already pointed out by numerous other critics — is who the target audience is. This isn’t the sanitized G-rated animation inspiration but rather an unashamed coming-of-age “I am woman, hear me roar” story. The marketing appears to be built upon Stone’s raw power and killer fashion sense, and while there are plenty of communities that will entirely embrace this, it doesn’t seem broadly appealing to mass audiences except for the curiosity of it. Is the world ready for a decidedly adult Ms. de Vil and the possible sequels to follow? Two Emmas; no waiting.

Cruella is rated PG-13 for some violence, thematic elements, and getting everything you have coming to you.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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