by Jordan King
The 1961 Disney classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians, adapted from Dodie Smith’s beloved novel, introduced us to a woman so evil it wasn’t just in her nature, but her name. “Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will,” so the famous song goes. An angular, spidery woman with black-and-white hair, cloaked in furs and hell-bent on skinning pups to add to her animal cruelty couture collection, de Vil – unlike the underrated minor masterwork from which she was born – has endured in the cultural consciousness as one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved (beloathed?) villains. With the arrival of I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie’s Cruella however, which trades the slinking jazz of the Swinging Sixties for the anarchistic punk explosion of the 1970s, we are given a prequel/origin story that suggests it’s less ‘better the Devil you know’, and more ‘better the de Vil you didn’t’. The result is the boldest, best offering yet in Disney’s post-Alice in Wonderland live-action era.
First thing’s first, Cruella’s name isn’t Cruella here. At least, not to begin with. We meet her as Estella (a superb Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a rambunctious youngster whose mother (Emily Beecham) has to remind her to control her more confrontational impulses to avoid being a ‘Cruella’. When tragedy strikes however at the ostentatious, opulent mansion home of couture icon The Baroness (Emma Thompson), Estella – eyes newly opened to both the allure of the world of high fashion and the cruelty of loss and grief – finds herself orphaned and alone on the streets of London. There, she meets Horace and Jasper, two pickpockets who ingratiate her into their life of grifting and thieving to get by.
In a quick cut in front of the mirror, lost child Estella becomes young wannabe designer Estella, played by Emma Stone. With her sartorial skill and Horace and Jasper’s knack for finding ‘an angle’ (the adult Horace and Jasper are played by a brilliantly paired Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry), Estella is – unwittingly perhaps – embodying the smash-and-grab spirit of the artistic rebellion Punk represents. From a lowly position Jasper snags for Estella at high-end retailer Liberty, Estella’s itching to break the rules in life and in fashion sees her catch the eye of The Baroness, who hires her on the spot, seemingly half out of admiration and half out of fear of competition.
When Estella learns of The Baroness’ involvement in the death of her mother however, something deep inside her snaps, and out into the world comes Cruella. By day, Estella plays the loyal pup to Thompson’s withering, pantomimically self-important Baroness, taking ludicrous lunch orders in between her boss’ ‘nine minute nap’ sessions. By night however, Cruella appears, doggedly working to undermine and unnerve The House of Baroness. In her first devilishly dazzling confrontation with the Baroness at an aptly themed Black-and-White Ball, Cruella arrives in a white robe before shattering a delicate alcoholic arrangement and promptly dropping a lit match which sees her reborn, phoenix like, in a fierce bloodred dress. “You are… something,” Thompson’s Baroness remarks in a tone that cocktails curiosity and palpable discomfort. What follows will increase both visceral reactions exponentially.
With the aid of journalist and former school pal Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Cruella unleashes her daring brand of design as she partakes in elaborate publicity stunt after elaborate publicity stunt to dethrone the queen of the London fashion world, tumbling out of bin lorries in garish garbage dresses and performing ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ on the Baroness’ doorstep after dognapping her prized dalmatians, all whilst privately plotting the ultimate heist. A phenomenal soundtrack and a suitably slick Nicholas Britell score compliment DP Nicolas Karakatsanis’ restless, Scorsese-inspired camerawork perfectly through these haute couture hijinks.
As Cruella takes the world by storm, Estella recedes farther and farther into the rear-view. The young fashionista beholden to guilt and fear transforms slowly into a formidable woman who believes in a sixth stage of grief – revenge. Stone plays that transition from sympathy to psychopathy and back again with relish, offering us the attitude of her Easy A star making performance, the eccentricity that made The Favourite so mesmeric, and the big screen befitting emotional intensity that branded Mia’s name in our hearts in La La Land.
If the above synopsis sounds like A LOT, then that is because it is. But, contrary to reviews that have paired Cruella’s ambitious length with descriptors such as ‘bloated’ or ‘overwrought’, the simple truth is that Gillespie’s film earns its two hour plus runtime, offering viewers a fully fleshed-out character study, a fashion world friction film a la The Devil Wears Prada, and a crime caper that is always coming up with new angles and greater grifts to live up to the enormity of the Cruella de Vil name. And honestly, the film never truly stumbles as it builds speed ahead of a cathartic, legacy sealing climax.
The two Emmas at the heart of the film are fantastic, whilst the ensemble allows great comic talents like Fry and Walter Hauser, as well as the brilliant Jamie Demetrius – who shines as the snooty Liberty manager with a superiority complex – to have a blast as cartoonish creations underscored with a decent measure of heart. The five-strong screenwriting team offer satisfying arcs for all of the characters in the film, while Gillespie in the director’s seat imbues this film with the same kineticism that made I, Tonya play so well with cinemagoers. And that’s saying nothing of the costumes, which are in and of themselves intrinsic to the character, spirit, and soul of the movie – Jenny Beaven does with leathers and silks what Mary Blair used to with paint and ink, and each of Cruella and The Baroness’ outfits compete gladiatorially for “most Oscar-worthy piece of costume design”, to our great pleasure.
Cruella has already been taken to task over its silly choice of root for its titular character’s canine hatred, but not only should you not judge a book by its cover – you should also probably not judge a film by the sarcastic tweet based on an out-of-context clip. Cruella thrives because it offers riotous entertainment in a brilliantly stylised setting and because it takes what in lesser hands could’ve been a rote origin story with nothing to offer besides iconography and transforms it into an oddly empowering and fierce piece of myth-making. The Cruella de Vil we meet here is NOT the same we see in Disney’s 1961 classic, and she’s all the better for it.
Bold, bad, brilliant, and more than a bit mad, Cruella is a film that, with little hype and expectation, has struck out of nowhere to offer up one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year. They say a dog’s bark is worse than it bites, but with Stone and Thompson on such top form, we get bark and bite and so much more besides.
Cruella is out in cinemas and on Disney+ Premiere access now!