There’s one major problem with crafting a film around the early exploits of a young Cruella de Vil, one of Disney lore’s most unhinged (and fabulous) signature villains: Her primary directive is, for as long as we’ve known her, to steal, kill, skin, and wear puppies. Puppies! “Maleficent” juggled similarly tough territory — how to make a woman best known for poisoning actual babies seem sympathetic — and did it well enough to inspire two films about the villain’s secret charms, but Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” struggles to attain similar success. And yet it’s a far more exciting film, if only because its messiness and silliness and soap-opera twists and sartorial turns are all in service to the only way to feasibly make Cruella palatable to kiddos: it’s really quite fun.
Gillespie was hired to direct the feature — long in the works, and with no less than five credited screenwriters — after the success of his cheeky black comedy “I, Tonya.” It’s easy to see why: In both films, Gillespie is tasked with providing information about larger-than-life, misunderstood women, information that he gussies up with canny casting, self-aware plot twists, and a whole lot of cool stuff to look at and listen to. “Cruella” is lousy with incredible costumes (from Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan, who should absolutely be back in the awards mix with this one) and needle drops that run the gamut between hilarious and too-on-the-nose, a riot of sound and color and delight that partially obscures the darkness at the film’s heart.
So, yes, what would make a person become desirous of canine-killing for fun and fashion, the kind of baddie who would happily go after no less than 101 Dalmatians? The film opens with Estella’s birth — the “Cruella” thing came later — a happy event for her charming mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), though one marked by the weirdness of young Estella’s hair: black and white, split right down the middle. Through constant, occasionally annoying voiceover narration, adult Estella (Emma Stone) walks us through her early years, as cheery Catherine tries to basically love the awkward little kiddo into normalcy. It doesn’t work. Estella is wild for fashion, standing out, and going her own way, and it’s hardly endeared her to the kids at her straight-laced school (save for, of course, a young Anita Darling, who likes Estella’s verve).
Finally kicked out of their humble country town, Catherine and Estella make tracks for London, stopping off at a lavish estate where Catherine plans to ask a mysterious old friend (this is a good point to mention that the film co-stars a dazzling Emma Thompson) for money to help them. All of this may sound predictable, but it shoots off into some wild directions, enough to a) kill off Catherine (Estella is the star of a Disney movie, of course she’s an orphan) and b) make Estella think it’s all her fault. Eventually landed in London, a distraught Estella takes up with street ruffians Jasper and Horace, and sets about a life of petty crime.
This all takes place in the first 20 minutes, and if that sounds like enough material for a single film, buckle up: “Cruella” clocks in at a bloated 134 minutes, enough to put Estella and pals through enough contrivances to frame an entire franchise. Still, those continued complications are in service to something important: turning Estella, kind and smart and strange, into the crazed villain we know. It’s going to take a lot, but most of it hinges on outsized twists and turns, “Dallas”-level revelations, and a few zippy heists.
A decade and a number of odd machinations later, Estella is a young fashion star in the employ of the fierce Baroness (Thompson), who has little idea of just how closely the pair are linked. Estella and pals (played in their older years by a very well-cast Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) are petty criminals, but they’re also charming strivers who love each other and want each other to succeed. (And, did we mention, they also house a pair of cute dogs? This Cruella loves dogs!) Estella’s job working for the Baroness’ chic fashion house feeds her need to create wondrous works of sartorial art, but being that close to someone who knew her beloved mother only sets up more complications.
Courtesy of Disney
The Baroness is crafted as a Disney-fied “Devil Wears Prada” villain, discerning and mean and incredibly funny; the sort of person who takes “nine-minute power naps” and relishes scaring her subordinates, all while looking incredibly chic while doing it. The story uses the Baroness as both a tool to turn Estella into Cruella and to serve as the actual evildoer, if only so Estella doesn’t have to. As the star of an eponymous prequel, Cruella can’t be the villain of her own story — but it’s strange that the real villain is simply a dashing send-up of the Cruella we’ve known for literal decades. (Please don’t let this inspire a Baroness prequel.)
Estella toils for the Baroness by day; by night, she turns into her alter-ego, Cruella, a fashion rock star with a major punk streak. The secrets keep spilling out, the fashion only gets better, and the whole thing becomes wackier. A sequence set to Estella and pals rocking out to The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” a jail break best termed “delightful” — it all helps keep things buoyant as more dark secrets linger in the background, a stylish bait and switch.
Eventually, the film settles on an idea that’s both mature and simplistic, and certainly not necessarily appealing to the younger set: What if Cruella is just, well, sort of insane? It’s hard to argue with that logic, even if it feels like something of a cop-out. Stone is talented enough to ride the many vagaries of Estella and Cruella; the trappings around her can feel outsized and nutty, but she’s always believable. It’s a spectacle that only Disney could mount.
“Cruella” ends with both a definitive answer to “Hey, what made Cruella this way?” and a kind of hedging that seems destined to both rework the Disney canon (the answer is, of course, not “she’s a nut who wants to kill dogs!”) and leave open room for more films. Audience members can easily assemble what happens next, especially with supporting characters like adult Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak) humming at the busy edges of the film. (Wary of spoilers, we’ll just say: Fans of “101 Dalmatians” canine leads Pongo and Perdita will be both happy and horrified to learn about their provenance in the film’s closing moments.) Like all villains, Cruella just wants to be understood. As spotty as her origin story may be, it accomplishes that in style.
Walt Disney Pictures will release “Cruella” both theatrically and on Disney+ with premier access on Friday, May 28.
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