We’ve seen plenty of iconic Disney villains throughout the studio’s extensive filmography, and yet, there are arguably none who are more famous than the villainess of Disney Animation’s 1961 outing, One Hundred and One Dalmatians: the fashion-obsessed heiress turned sinister dognapper Cruella de Vil. Ever since the original film’s release, Cruella has been regarded as one of the most famous villains in cinematic history and this status was thoroughly maintained in 1996 when 101 Dalmatians became one of the first Disney animated films to get a live-action remake. In said film, Cruella was portrayed by the legendary Glenn Close, and while the film itself wasn’t as well-received as its animated counterpart, Close’s performance was widely regarded as its greatest highlight, promptly earning her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical. She then proceeded to reprise the role in the film’s 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians, and while that would basically be it for the 101 Dalmatians live-action film franchise at the time, plans were set into place for a prequel film based entirely around Cruella herself in 2013. And while this did mean that Close wasn’t going to be reprising her iconic role, she still ended up being involved with the project as an executive producer. Thus, Emma Stone took on the role for this new film, which is the latest from director Craig Gillespie who, like previous directors of the live-action 101 Dalmatians films (Stephen Herek and Kevin Lima), has done a bunch of films for Disney in the past such as 2014’s Million Dollar Arm and 2016’s The Finest Hours. And thanks to his strong direction and a top-notch lead performance from Emma Stone, Cruella is a strikingly stylish and edgy new take on the story of its titular villainess.
Growing up, Estella Miller (Emma Stone) was known for being quite the troublemaker which, in her eyes, may have made her responsible for the death of her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) at a luxurious party hosted by ‘The Baroness’ (Emma Thompson), the owner of one of the top fashion houses in London. Now orphaned, Estella ends up taking on a life of thievery alongside her newfound friends, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) Badun. Eventually, her creative sensibilities manage to attract the attention of the Baroness, who promptly hires her as one of her new designers. But while Estella steadily works her way up into being one of the Baroness’ key assistants, she soon discovers that the Baroness has come into possession of a necklace that had been given to her by her mother but had been lost on the night of her death. Now realizing that the Baroness was the one responsible for her mother’s death, Estella, with the aid of Horace and Jasper, promptly embarks on a plot of revenge. Adopting an old persona of hers from childhood, she becomes the rebellious Cruella de Vil and begins to pull off a series of publicity stunts to one-up the Baroness, thus locking the two of them into an intense rivalry that only proceeds to get more complicated once Estella uncovers the Baroness’ darkest secret.
Cruella very much follows in the footsteps of 2014’s Maleficent by presenting a story where the main antagonist of one of Disney’s classic animated films is portrayed in a more sympathetic light as they enact their revenge against those who wronged them. Granted, it’s not like the film makes her a full-on protagonist or anything; in fact, I’d even argue that this one gives its title character more opportunities to be a devious renegade. But overall, the version of Cruella seen in this film doesn’t seem like she’s destined to become as villainous as she’s known for being in other films. Thus, just like Maleficent, I think it’s safe to say that this take on the character hasn’t gone over well with everybody, namely due to the attempt of trying to humanize a character who, at least in other films, wanted to kidnap puppies and kill them for their coats. However, given the context of how this story plays out, it isn’t too big of an issue in the long run because turning Cruella into a rebellious antihero fits perfectly with this story’s 1970’s London setting. And thanks to Craig Gillespie's visually-driven direction, the film excellently captures the punk rock aesthetic of the time, which is only strengthened further by other great elements such as the incredible costume design done by two-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan and a rocking soundtrack full of classic tunes. Really, the only things that hold this film back are relatively minor at best such as it being perhaps a bit overlong at a little over two hours and some rather predictable final plot twists that reveal the true connection between Cruella and the Baroness.
As noted in the intro, Glenn Close’s performance as Cruella in the 1996 live-action 101 Dalmatians film and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians, is so iconic that she’s arguably the definitive incarnation of the character for at least one or two generations. As such, one can only imagine the pressure that Emma Stone was under to deliver a version of the character that was just as memorable by comparison… and yet, she fully succeeds in doing so thanks in large part to her indisputable on-screen charisma. She also works incredibly well with Emma Thompson, who basically serves as this film’s version of the kind of villain that Cruella is in other films as the Baroness, a role that Thompson gleefully revels in. And really, it’s simply a delight to see these two go to war with one another over the course of the film’s proceedings. The two Emmas are then backed by some terrific supporting turns from Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Cruella’s famously bumbling sidekicks, Jasper and Horace. The laid-back persona that Fry brings to Jasper makes him the most grounded member of the group and the one who keeps Cruella from going too far with her actions while Paul Walter Hauser, as is basically expected from him at this point, makes Horace one of the film’s best sources of comedic relief. And while they admittedly don’t have as much to work with by comparison, Mark Strong and Kirby Howell-Baptiste turn in solid work as well as John, the Baroness’ valet, and this film’s interpretation of the 101 Dalmatians franchise’s primary matriarch, Anita Darling.
As we conclude this review, I should probably preface this final section of it by admitting that, regardless of my overall thoughts on the film, Cruella will always be in my good graces since it was the first film that I was able to see in a theatrical setting in more than a year after everything that happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, though, this is not just a case where I’m simply being sentimental about how I first viewed it as the film itself is a highly entertaining comedic crime adventure that prides itself on its incredibly stylish visuals and costuming and then proceeds to back it all up with a genuinely unique way of reimagining the story of one of Disney’s most iconic antagonists. Sure, it may go against the traditional ways in which Cruella de Vil has been portrayed on film before, but thanks to Emma Stone’s outstanding performance in the title role (not to mention an equally terrific supporting cast), it still works in a way that doesn’t end up betraying the source material. Simply put, the enthusiasm that the cast and crew clearly must have had for this material couldn’t be more apparent in a film that also manages to have the kind of edge to it that you normally wouldn’t get from a Disney production. With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why this has managed to be the very definition of a crowd-pleaser that was recently confirmed to be getting a sequel. And while it’s currently unclear as to what route it’ll end up taking, perhaps they can go with the suggestion that was made during an interview that the two Emmas had with Rotten Tomatoes and make it a Godfather II-style prequel/sequel that could potentially see Glenn Close returning to play an older Cruella.
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