Orphaned in London the young Estella, not yet Cruella, meets her sidekicks for the rest of the film, the street thieves Jasper and Horace. She, along with her dog, joins their gang and takes part in many swish pick-pocketing sequences, aided by their adorable dogs. She is happy, but never lets go of her dream of being a fashion designer.
Disney is running out of stories to tell. Well, that’s been clear for a while. We have had pointless remakes of their classic stories- Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Mulan – which sometimes change the tone but rarely add more to these stories than the latest and most expensive CGI money can buy. Disney has already tried the villain-backstory-prequel in 2014 with Maleficent, a very average film that somehow still birthed an even more average sequel. Yet, perhaps due to DC’s more recent success of Joker, Disney returned to the concept to create Cruella. This time they got it right.
Emma Stone, as always, captures the audience. Whilst she starts as sweet, Estella’s ambition to be big in the world of fashion, tied with a painful uncovering of past events, pushes her to malevolence and madness. Stone’s British accent may crack on some of the shorter lines, but the way she plays Estella is both witty and grandiose. The villain in her gradually appears and she becomes completely self-absorbed and crazed, she takes on the name Cruella to mark this new darkness to her character. However, Stone brings a believable softness in emotional scenes, making us ultimately sympathise with her. Moreover, she is somehow able to bring sincerity to a woman infamous for her preposterous idea of killing dozens of dogs just to make a nice coat.
Emma Stone is not the only Emma to shine in this film. Emma Thomson is fantastic as the villain to the villain, The Baroness. She is fabulously ridiculous in many scenes – channelling both Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and the Wicked Witch of the West. She commands the scene as she commands her design house workers at 5am in the morning. Only Thomson’s presence can rival that of Stone’s in the ball scenes where they fight their fashion. The Baroness is the hyperbole of the horrendous workaholic design boss, taking daily 8-minute post-lunch power naps with cucumber on her eyes. She is frightening, and madder than even Cruella, but with such power and sophistication that she is untouchable.
The film is lucky to have such a strong protagonist and antagonist pairing. The side characters were fun but not fully fleshed out. Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) provide light entertainment and laughs as well as the obligatory Disney message about the importance of family. Jasper especially, is almost a doormat for Cruella which maybe speaks of her power over others, but maybe speaks of his slightly bland personality. Artie (John McCrea) is a flamboyant and fashionable Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie gay man who had wonderful costumes and some snappy lines but did not add much in the way of plot. Worse, the journalist character of Maya was only there to tie this prequel to the original 101 Dalmatians.
This is where the film gets it wrong. If Cruella had been only a ridiculous fashion-filled heist story it would have succeeded more. It did, to its credit, try to move itself away from its source material with the change of setting from 1950s to 1970s, yet it would have been so much better if it was a film completely independent of it. Even as fantastical as the costumes and the Emmas’ performances made it, some elements just did not seem to fit, such as where Cruella’s hatred of Dalmatians comes from.
Nevertheless, you can ignore all the issues for the visual spectacle before your eyes. The gorgeous classic Chanel style of The Baroness clashes with the Alexander McQueen fashion of Cruella. The visual stunts too are incredible, leaving you whooping at the daring of Cruella in a cinema filled with strangers. The camerawork is surprisingly innovative for Disney with tracking shots used very effectively. The soundtrack of 60s and 70s hits ties the whole film together and is one of the best I have heard in a film since Babydriver. (Allegedly it’s where the majority of the film’s $200 million budget went, but I’d honestly say it was worth it.)The strong combination of Stone and Thomson makes for a great film, supported by costumes and set pieces that will make your jaw drop and your wallet sting in your pocket. Even if the concept is not original and the plot awkwardly circles back to the source text in places, Cruella is the most fun I’ve had watching a film in ages.
Image: Patrick L. via Wikimedia Commons