Over the last century or so, Disney has crafted some of the most terrifying and fun adversaries of our childhoods opposite its beloved heroes, princes, princesses, and toys, and when the studio decided to explore the tale of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent in 2014 it provided an exciting new point of view. Seven years later, we now have our second villain prequel with Craig Gillespie's Cruella. But Ms. DeVil is worlds away from a prick on the finger and not-so eternal slumber; how does the House of Mouse make us care about a character so defined by her intense need to kill puppies for fashion?
Cruella approaches this challenge with over-indulgent sophistication, and delicious dark humor mix-matched with a just ok storyline that truly is Disney’s version of The Devil Wears Prada. It’s a fun time at the movies and you likely won’t be mad to have stepped into this world as the film is an especially eccentric entry of the recent bunch of live action adaptations of animated classics. But for all its style and genuine flair, the prequel can’t escape the familiar and tired storytelling of origin stories we’ve come to know too well.
Emma Stone’s performance as Cruella DeVil is chillingly good.
Emma Stone’s Cruella DeVil provides the delicate balance of sour and sweet the audience needs to follow her story without manipulating movie-goers to actually like a true and storied villain. Initially named Estella, the eponymous protagonist is introduced as a headstrong orphan with the passion for fashion. Once she gets her shot to go head to head with Emma Thompson’s Baroness, the movie heats up into a juicy stare down between the talented actresses. Stone has always had a mysterious and magical way of engaging with audiences, and she carries Cruella brilliantly from start to finish… even when it sometimes feels like an over-the-top dress up act.
Another actress may have made Cruella too cartoony, but when Emma Stone slips into that black and white wig she does it seamlessly. Despite a flimsy backstory for her character that can be forced to work in her favor in some ridiculous ways, wow, does Stone sell it anyway. While delivering a scathing monologue at the film’s climax, she transforms what could have been a basic “I’m Cruella” moment to a sincerely chilling performance that won’t soon be forgotten alongside her other dramatic work in movies like The Favourite and La La Land.
Craig Gillespie’s direction in Cruella is oozing with style from top to bottom.
Behind many a great performance is a great director, and Cruella made a magnificent choice with Craig Gillespie. The filmmaker behind I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl brings his clever sense of style to Cruella from every angle. Gillespie blasts a stellar soundtrack throughout the movie, and some welcome roughness to the Disney film with a vision that shines despite the script itself not being as epic as the filmmaking at work.
The movie is ambitious in many ways. It’s an origin that carefully finds a clean grey area that can exist in the Disney canon, while also being a ‘70s heist movie starring Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Frye’s Horace and Jasper – plus a fabulous showcase of top-of-the-line fashion. Between Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, the love for clothing is another main character by itself, and the passion's presence in Cruella is executed creatively. Its worldbuilding is interesting enough to live in for its two hour and 14 minute runtime, though there are moments when it can come off as overblown, flashy and a bit too long.
Yet, Cruella’s origin can’t break Disney’s formulaic habits.
Cruella’s spirit for elegance and style is appreciated and the entire cast plays and lives within its world very well. For a Cruella origin story, as sticky as that was going to be, Disney pulls it off in an unexpected, bold and entertaining way. It’s not sympathetic, Cruella is unapologetic and thrives for being gravely confident in itself.
But, at the same time there’s an emptiness about Cruella. Having watched 101 Dalmatians, anyone truly care and ever wonder why Cruella DeVil became a hungry-for-puppy-fur kind of gal in the first place? It seems like the idea of a Cruella movie just sounded cool and thus it was made – but it delivers for what it is. It’s a stylish movie about fashion where the villain you know is expanded upon, but there isn't really any message or big “why.” Just like Solo: A Star Wars Story felt like the product of a Disney executive snapping their fingers for a Han Solo movie and it existing over $200 million later, Cruella is another “can” so it “did” circumstance. Luckily this time around there’s some real personality to dress it up into something distinct.
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