Emma Stone gets punk-y, spunky and diabolically funky in Cruella
Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson & Mark Strong
Directed by Craig Gillespie
In theaters and on Disney+ March 28, 2021
Disney hikes up its hip factor considerably with this bow-wow-wow backstory to one of its grandest, most grandiose franchise villains.
The House of Mouse, known for fairytale princesses and happily-ever-after endings, gets punk-y and spunky and devilishly funky with Cruella. Playfully dark, popping with brisk, saber-sharp wit and soaring with superfly style, it’s one of the most vivaciously deviant Disney properties to ever come flying out of the movie mousehole.
There’s no Little Mermaid, no Cinderella or no Sleeping Beauty anywhere in sight as a young London street urchin, Estella (Emma Stone), graduates from pickpocketing and petty thievery to seize her moment—and apply her innate design skills—with an opportunity at a posh fashion house. But the head of the fashion empire, the haughty, manipulative Baroness (Emma Thompson), is a battle axe who chops up her competition, steals Estella’s designs and crushes her dreams. The Baroness also harbors a deep secret that triggers Estella’s transformation into her vengeful alter ego, Cruella de Ville.
As the tension heats up between them, a raucous, all-out fashion war erupts, involving a purloined heirloom, an Oceans 11-style heist, doggie poo and a special glittery gala gown that will eventually have all of London a-flutter—and make Cruella the toast of the town.
And those handsome Dalmatian dogs that belong to the Baroness? Well, they become an integral part of the tale, as well.
Director Craig Gillespie (whose other films include Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night and I, Tonya) fleshes out the character of Estella from the very beginning. In voiceover narration (from a grownup Estella/Cruella), we learn that Estella came into the world making a bold statement—namely, with her shock of hair, jet black on one side and pure white on the other, that made strangers gasp. “From an early age, I saw the world differently,” she says.
When she’s old enough to go to school, other kids bully little Estella (played as a youngster by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland). She fights back, getting into so many scraps and scuffles that the headmaster quickly fills up the white spaces of her behavior record with black inkblots.
That black-and-white, Dalmatian-dot, good-or bad “duality” will come to define Estella-Cruella, in an almost literal sense.
Stone won an Oscar for La La Land, and she was nominated for her role in The Favourite. But she’s every kind of perfect for her part here, and you can tell how much diabolic fun she’s having digging into the campy, vampy, deep-dish-diva conflicted anti-hero vibes. By the time Estella completes her “arc” and becomes Cruella, we get it; Stone makes us understand all that curdled her character. There’s a series of progressive provocations, bad breaks, bad news, sad news, a major tragedy, and one absolutely golly-whopper shocker of a surprise.
Cruella relishes being an outlier—but she wants to do it her way, with a flourish of rebel style and outrè fashion. She’s Disney’s first true rock-star villainess. “I want to make art,” she says. “And I want to make trouble.”
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, especially the other Emma—the venerable British veteran Emma Thompson is hilariously haughty as the deliciously corrupt Baroness, the movie’s equivalent of an “evil queen.” Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry are terrific as Estella/Cruella’s partners in crime, and Mark Strong plays his cards close to his chest as the longtime, loyal valet for the Baroness who has an important childhood connection to Estella, too. British theatrical actor John McCrea is sure to become an audience fave as Artie, the owner of a London boutique who becomes a Cruella ally.
And doggone it if a little eyepatch-wearing pooch named Winks, another Cruella accomplice, doesn’t come close to stealing the show, along with a bunch of other things.
Set in the swinging mid-1970s, the movie dazzles and zazzles with an explosion of eye-popping fashions—just wait until you get a load of Cruella’s spectacular “garbage-truck gown.” And it has a killer soundtrack, one of the most rockin’ playlists of any Disney flick ever, mining the musical wealth of its mid-’70s setting. How can you not love a film that kicks off with Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right,” closes with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” and packs in a Beatles cover from Tina Turner, the movie theme from Car Wash, plus hit tunes and deep tracks from Queen, David Bowie, Deep Purple, Joe Tex, Black Sabbath, Argent, Doris Day, the J. Geils Band and Suzie Quatro? In a pivotal “coming out” scene, Cruella herself takes the stage to belt out “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” her cover of the debut 1969 single from the punk-metal band The Stooges.
Little girls may still be swooning to Frozen’s power anthem “Let It Go.” But Cruella brings the big-girl fire, not the ice. This is one totally groovy movie that really rocks. It’s fun and it’s funny, witty and wily, outrageously full of sass and style, and it barrels along with both high-spirited hijinks and heart.
Now: How to get around the fact that, in the 1961 Disney animated original and two live-action sequels, the character of Cruella made coats from the pelts of Dalmatian puppies? That’s why she’s always been one of Disney’s baddest of bad girls, so hissable there was very little to redeem her. How can anything make us like, or understand, someone like that?
I won’t spoil how Cruella deals with such an elephant-sized Dalmatian of a character flaw in the room, other to say that it will likely surprise you, how tactfully, creatively and quite satisfyingly the film sidesteps such a sizeable potential landmine—and even pulls off the amazing feat of making us sympathize with Cruella as it leaves the door open for what assuredly feels like a sequel. At the very end you’ll witness something else quite creative, as the movie circles back (and looks ahead, at the same time) to its 1961 predecessor with a snippet of an old familiar song, and a couple of Cruella characters—who happen to have some very familiar names, for anyone familiar with the original film—get some very special deliveries.
After one particularly big night, Cruella pops into Artie’s shop. “Well, you certainly made a splash,” he approvingly coos.
Indeed, she did—and she does, in this splashy, badass, blissfully ballsy spinout from the venerable Disney stables, one that takes a classic 2D cartoon character and brings her roaring to live-action life with gutsy verve, passion and grit.
What will Cruella do next, another character asks her later. “I’ve got a few ideas,” she says with a coy smile. Ooooooh, and we can’t wait to find out what they are.