Disney kicked their live-action remakes into overdrive after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made over a billion dollars. Before that film, Disney experimented with Stephen Sommers’ forgotten version of The Jungle Book. Disney had more success with 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil and, to a lesser extent, 102 Dalmatians. Now Disney is back to Dalmatians with Emma Stone inheriting the Cruella role, although Close remains an executive producer. Cruella isn’t another beat-for-beat remake, however. This film takes the Maleficent route, presenting an origin story from the villainess’ perspective. Unlike Maleficent, though, Cruella isn’t all bark and no bite.
The film presents Cruella as a twisted misfit torn between being naughty and nice. This is reflected through her hair, which is naturally black and white from birth. While her given name is Estella, she prefers to let Cruella off her leash. Following a tragedy that’s either intentionally or unintentionally funny, Cruella finds a couple of partners in crime. Joel Fry brings more depth to the role of Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser is the spitting image of Horace. Disney should keep Hauser in mind while casting Smee for their inevitable Peter Pan remake. Cruella leaves petty crimes behind after landing a dream gig working for fashion icon Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who’s not what she seems. From there, the film becomes one-half revenge dramedy and one-half The De Vil Wears Prada.
Various outlets have compared Cruella to Joker. Stone’s Cruella perhaps shares more in common with Catwoman in Batman Returns. Like Michelle Pfeiffer, Stone has a ball playing the meek Estella and the diabolically fashionable Cruella. At one point, we even see Cruella pretending to be Estella, showing just how many layers Stone can bring to a character. All that’s missing is Christopher Walken throwing Cruella out a window and dogs licking her blood. Being a Disney movie, they naturally can’t go all-out with the darkness. While this prevents Cruella from reaching its full potential, it thankfully has a better understanding of the titular character than Maleficent.
Love conquered all in Maleficent, stripping away everything that made the Mistress of All Evil endearing. As a protagonist, this version of Cruella is made more empathetic. Skinning puppies isn’t her goal here either, but Cruella ultimately embraces the darkness. This movie understands that Cruella was born to be bad and doesn’t outright make her a good girl in the end. Being a prequel of sorts, one could imagine this Cruella becoming a full-blown baddie down the line. As a stand-alone movie, though, Stone creates an anti-heroine we can root for, and Thompson’s Baroness is a villainess we love to hate. They’re what make this movie.
Director Craig Gillespie previously made I, Tonya, which presented a sympathetic depiction of Tonya Harding. Cruella is another absorbing character study with black humor and style in spades. Costume designer Jenny Beavan has outdone herself, and Fiona Crombie’s gothic production design is equally worthy of an Oscar nomination. While the film could’ve gone further with the darker elements, especially given its PG-13 rating, it mostly gets Cruella right. It’s over-the-top, soapy in the best way, and can be a lot of fun when it shows its fangs.