With a wickedly impressive fashion sense, an electric retro soundtrack and its sinfully entertaining title character, “Cruella” is the coolest Disney film in forever.
No stranger to vilified female icons, director Craig Gillespie (the man responsible for the brilliantly gonzo “I, Tonya”), takes on another complicated rebel in none other than the dastardly, puppy-killing “101 Dalmatians” villainess Cruella de Vil. In the delightfully madcap crime comedy (★★★1/2 out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access Friday) set in 1970s punk London, Disney’s all-time queen of mean garners new life with Emma Stone giving her over-the-top personality, with a deliciously smarmy Emma Thompson as a foil who brings out the best and worst in her.
Emma Stone plays the title role of "Cruella" as a young fashion designer in London. (Photo: DISNEY)
“Cruella” tracks its main character (whose signature black and white shocks of hair are all natural) from scorned newborn to bullied student to orphaned British ragamuffin. Estella (Stone) grows up a grifter with her fellow street-urchin buds in London, goodhearted thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), yet she also yearns to be a fashion designer. Estella gets hired at a posh department store as a janitor but after one drunken night redoing a window display that gets her fired, her idol, couture icon Baroness von Hellman (Thompson), realizes Estella’s untapped creativity and gives her a job in her ultra-competitive fashion house.
Too haute to handle and too cold to behold for most of her employees, the baroness takes Estella under her wing – for reasons not altogether altruistic. Estella discovers that her boss has an unmistakable necklace tied her past that she wants badly. Going undercover as the masked “Cruella” with her criminal friends for a heist at a ball, our protagonist also figures out a jaw-dropping realization about the baroness and taps into a long-repressed dark side.
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Emma Stone stars as the classic Disney villain Cruella De Vil, in her early days in 1970s London as an up-and-coming punk fashionista, in "Cruella."
Estella crafts a mysteriously chic urban legend for herself while seeking to both destroy and replace the baroness. However, she also alienates those closest to her and is forced to choose what kind of Cruella she’s truly going to be.
Costume designer Jenny Beavan’s outfits are absolutely stunning and essential to the movie’s razor-sharp style, as is the music: One sequence set to Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” finds Cruella racing down the street in her signature Panther De Ville car, hunched over and driving like a madwoman in a fun nod to the 1961 “Dalmatians” cartoon. Old-school Disney lovers will note occasional subtle references but thankfully Gillespie pumps the brakes on overdoing fan service. (And for those worried about the many dogs running around considering the central character’s reputation, Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s “Cruella” screenplay plays with your expectations in clever, non-murderous ways.)
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Emma Thompson plays high-profile fashion icon Baroness von Hellman, a mentor and foil to the main character of "Cruella." (Photo: LAURIE SPARHAM)
None of this works without Stone, though. She’s got the comic timing for the lighter scenes as well as the acting chops to pull off the character’s psychological transformation and personal reckoning: The movie gives Estella/Cruella a fork in the road and good reasons why she might go down either path. Just as key is Stone having such a scathing scene partner as Thompson, whose baroness is a hilariously demeaning monster with her own dramatic raison d’être.
Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, far left), Estella (Emma Stone) and Jasper (Joel Fry) create their own family in the back alleys of London in "Cruella." (Photo: LAURIE SPARHAM)
Fry and Hauser are quite enjoyable as morally grounded rogues, though the movie misses out by not giving a bigger role to Kirby Howell-Baptiste as gossip columnist Anita Darling, Cruella’s old school chum and, like Jasper and Horace, another “Dalmatians” throwback. And at two and a quarter hours, “Cruella” takes a little while to get going with an exposition-heavy opening, though settles into a well-paced groove once Estella and her main foil meet.
There’s no way Disney would ever do anything as overtly nihilistic as “Joker,” though Gillespie gleefully (and sometimes touchingly) taps into similar themes of class warfare and unfortunate deeds for a refreshing bite of a rotten apple. This Cruella’s not all good or all bad – she just is, doggone it. And if you have a problem with that, she’s got an icy, glitter-bombed death glare for you.
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