Disney’s mission to reinterpret and adapt their popular IP’s is still going strong and with their latest venture, they try to tap into the messy sympathetic side of their most vile, yet fashionable, villain.
Cruella directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie and written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara is the origin story of Cruella de Vil from Disney’s 1961 animated film, 101 Dalmatians. Specifically, this interpretation is the precursor to the Cruella made famous by Glenn Close in the 1996 live-action adaptation. Starring Emma Stone in the title role, it tells the story of young Estella’s journey from being an orphan on the streets of London to the notorious dog-fur obsessed Cruella she becomes later in her life. Similar to other reinterpretations from Disney, this adaptation reframes and recontextualizes Cruella’s persona to sketch a more sympathetic portrait. One that isn’t so black and white.
Perhaps the most infuriating part of the film is that the it is held back by the IP, by the established lore it attempts to neatly fit into. Despite nostalgic nods towards what is to come with certain key characters positioned to play their part in the 1996 film, this narrative alters so many relevant details that it is a wonder why it should be an origin story at all. The concept of a lowly grifter conning her way to the top of a fashion empire is enough to stand on its own as an original story. It becomes unbearably clear when the film must manufacture a reason for the personality shift between Estella, the orphan girl, to her alter ego, the fashionable criminal Cruella.
The nostalgia machine cannot be helped, so we must make do with what we have. With that being said, the film is honestly 50/50. Every element in regards to Cruella’s grifting and fashionable exploits is a delight to watch. No matter how irksome the constant needle drops may be, it does not distract from the incredible works of art and storytelling from costume designer Jenny Beavan, make-up artist Nancy Stacey and production designer Fiona Crombie. No matter how shaky the script is, the visual storytelling is well worth the watch. When the film is not overly concerned with reminding us of the Cruella that is to come 15-20 years down the line, it is a rather enjoyable battle of wits and glamour.
Stone is a peculiar choice to play Cruella, especially when an intriguing choice such as Emily Beecham (who plays Estella/Cruella’s mother) is present. (See AMC’s Into the Badlands to learn why Beecham would have been a solid choice to play Cruella). While the shaky British accent is made to play a part in Cruella’s deception, it still takes one out of the experience. Strangely, it is not convincing as her British accent in The Favourite. However, Stone is an exemplary talent with great comedic timing and charisma. She is no Glenn Close, but such a bar is too high for most. Emma Thompson’s Baroness is a vile and wicked version of Miranda Priestley from Devil Wears Prada but with the narrative at hand, it is a perfect characterization. Thompson saunters in with ease and her deadpan approach is endlessly entertaining. The film excels when it is solely about the battle for dominance between Cruella and the Baroness and falters when it must revert to being an origin story.
The ensemble around the two Emmas play their parts very well. Kirby Howell-Baptiste honestly serves no purpose other than to remind us that she is THE Anita who will care for Perdita in the future. Howell-Baptiste is wonderful, but sadly, she is the lone Black girlfriend of our white lead. A consequence of colour-blind casting that does nothing other than having diversity for diversity’s sake. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser are fine as Cruella’s henchmen and are fascinating foils to their leader. John McCrea’s new original character Arte is an absolute delight and could have easily had a larger role to play if the film were not so overly concerned with being an origin story. Ultimately, the ensemble cast does what they can with the material they are given.
Cruella is equal parts fun and exhausting. In between the obnoxious needle drops and the iconography of 101 Dalmatians there lies a very intriguing story about cruelty and women in power. The film is aesthetically pleasing and feels like a movie from the director of I, Tonya, but Disney’s darn obsession with IP prevents Cruella from reaching great new heights for the studio.
Oh, Disney, we could have had it all.
Cruella is available in select theatres and exclusively on Disney+ (with premiere access) on May 28th.
by Ferdosa Abdi