Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Emily Beecham
Runtime: 2 hrs 24 mins
Released By: Walt Disney
Opening Day: 27 May 2021
Synopsis: Academy Award® winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”) stars in Disney’s “Cruella,” an all-new live-action feature film about the rebellious early days of one of cinemas most notorious – and notoriously fashionable – villains, the legendary Cruella de Vil. “Cruella,” which is set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, follows a young grifter named Estella, a clever and creative girl determined to make a name for herself with her designs. She befriends a pair of young thieves who appreciate her appetite for mischief, and together they are able to build a life for themselves on the London streets. One day, Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of the Baroness von Hellman, a fashion legend who is devastatingly chic and terrifyingly haute, played by two-time Oscar® winner Emma Thompson (“Howards End,” “Sense & Sensibility”). But their relationship sets in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous, fashionable and revenge-bent Cruella.
As the latest Disney animated character to get the live-action treatment, ‘Cruella’ feels fresher than most recent efforts. Thanks to director Craig Gillespie, who was responsible for the deliciously gonzo ‘I, Tonya’, this revisionist supervillain origin story of Cruella de Vil (spelt ‘Devil’ but pronounced ‘De Vil’) oozes with style, sass and suaveness as a crime-and-couture romp, anchored by utterly brilliant performances from its two lead Emmas.
Emma Stone stars as the iconic title character, whom we are introduced to as a likeably mischievous tot named Estella with a keen fashion sense, an unmissable black-and-white bob of hair, and a rebellious streak that eventually gets her expelled from the straight-laced primary school she is initially enrolled in. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say a tragic turn of events leaves her orphaned on the streets of London, whereupon she hooks up with two street ruffians and settles in as a seasoned grifter for a life of petty crime.
It is the machinations of one of her partners that Estella lands a low-level job at Liberty’s, which sets the stage for her encounter with the revered fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Estella is recruited by the Baroness herself to be an apprentice at the latter’s workshop, where she and other nameless designers silently endure the imperious queen’s narcissism (such as loudly reading her own rave reviews) and sadism (in one scene, after accidentally slashing Estella’s hand, she simply directs her fabric department to match that precise shade of red).
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Estella will be matched against the Baroness, transforming into the titular alter-ego through disillusionment, grief and rage to take on an unambiguous monster. As conceived by a team of five writers, including ‘The Devil Wears Prada’s’ Aline Brosh McKenna, Estella turns into Cruella to crash the Baroness’ galas with a succession of stunning gowns and shock-the-runway theatrics, earning a reputation as a fashion rock star with a major punk streak that upstages the Baroness as the talk of the town.
Even as she embraces anarchism, Cruella never takes her villainy to any compelling extremes. While there are clear similarities to ‘Joker’ in how the movie grounds its antiheroine’s antisocial behaviour to psychological loss, this is ultimately still a Disney movie meant for family audiences, so don’t be expecting the sort of nihilism in other such misanthropic character-driven movies. Gone is her loathing towards dogs or for that matter her obsession with making fur coats out of helpless Dalmatian puppies; instead, Cruella is explained here as a victim of circumstance, and therefore worthy of empathy despite her extremities.
That the movie pops in spite of being constrained by demographic is credit to Stone and Thompson as we’ve said, both of whom are perfect complements as they aim to out-dress, outshine and outwit each other. Fluctuating accent notwithstanding, Stone nails her role’s inner Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic, navigating the vagaries of Estella and Cruella with aplomb amidst the distracting theatricalities. Thompson is dazzling as the film’s true villain, oozing malice and menace with every scene she is in. And then there are the other supporting actors, including Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser who are good fun as Estella’s comrades-in-crime, and Mark Strong who is somewhat wasted as the Baroness’ stone-faced aide-de-camp.
Despite running at over two hours, ‘Cruella’ keeps the energy high throughout, in part from the needle drops of ‘60s and ‘70s hits of The Clash, Blondie and the Stooges, in part from the wildly imaginative costumes by Jenny Beavan, and in part from the brilliant production design of posh department stores, bohemian thrift shops and couture palaces by Fiona Crombie. There are also a couple of spectacular set-pieces, including a daring heist in the middle of one of the Baroness’ fashion shows, an appearance in a mile-long chiffon train from the back of a garbage truck, and a thrilling finale that caps Estella’s evolution into Cruella.
Lest there be any doubt, ‘Cruella’ is nothing like the character in Disney’s 1961 classic animation ‘101 Dalmatians’ or its 1996 and 2000 live-action cousins that starred Glenn Close. On the contrary, this is a complete reimagining that succeeds at being probably the hippest, most stylish and certainly most fashionable live-action reboot from the Disney stable. There is plenty of wicked, if harmless, fun to be had here, buoyed by the inimitable talents of our two lead Emmas and sheer visual and aural punch. Like we said, it feels a lot fresher than any of the recent Disney adaptations thus far, and for that reason, we’ll happily line up for the sequel teased in the mid-credit scene.
(Oozing with sass, style and suaveness, this revisionist supervillain origin story is an utter hoot from start to finish, especially with two perfectly matched Emmas)
Review by Gabriel Chong