Here’s a question for you: did we really need an origin story movie for Cruella de Vil? Was there anything about either her animated or live-action depictions that needed expanding? The surprising answer turns out to be “Yes, queen.” Disney’s new live-action Cruella shows us there’s more to Lady de Vil than just being a psychotic, fur-wearing baddie. She’s also a fashion designer, as well.
Estella (Emma Stone) is orphaned at a young age and survives on the streets of London as a thief alongside her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). An aspiring fashion designer, she cons her way into a job at a posh department store that gets her noticed by iconic designer the Baroness (Emma Thompson). As she learns more about her past and chafes under the Baroness’ authoritarian style, she adopts the persona of Cruella to turn the 1970s London fashion scene upside-down with a combination of couture, chaos, and crime. (And yes, dalmatians show up at one point.)
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: there’s really no reason for this film to exist, but thank goodness it does. Cruella de Vil, possibly more than nearly any other Disney villain, never needed a backstory. The fact that she was just plain evil was enough to fuel the character’s depictions and endear her to people everywhere. Whether it was Betty Lou Gerson or Glenn Close portraying her, Cruella’s camp style, deliciously unhinged psyche, and unapologetic viciousness were all we needed.
And to be fair, Cruella the film doesn’t always justify itself in context to the character we already know. That all being said, what we have here is a thoroughly enjoyable and impossibly stylish picture that is often better when taken out of that context. After all, its timeline doesn’t mesh with the original animated film (which takes place decades prior) and the character here seems wholly different from the one in the live-action films. The film works best when seen on its own merits, taking the elements of the established character and redesigning them for a new era of cinema and storytelling. It’s essentially Cruella getting her own Joker-style standalone film, one that doesn’t completely mesh with any established cinematic universes and probably shouldn’t in the first place.
A lot of what makes the film work comes down to one word: Emma. Both of them. Both Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are in peak form throughout, both employing their own unique forms of charisma, both utterly fabulous from start to finish. Thompson’s Baroness has almost no redeeming qualities, thank god. She’s unapologetically vicious and tyrannical, and Thompson’s delivery and poise makes her a magnetic antagonistic with the same kind of confidence that makes up the best villains in Disney’s canon. The fact that she never looks less than stunning certainly helps as well.
But it’s Emma Stone that ultimately makes the movie. While it’s easy to see Stone’s established cinematic persona in the her hip but nerdy guise as Estella, she is nearly unrecognizable as Cruella. In all the best ways. Her Cruella is a distillation of all her incarnations poured into a fashion-rebel singularity that draws everyone into her orbit. Wicked, charming, and wickedly charming, Cruella is easy to admire even when she’s at her worst. She’s a textbook example of chaotic neutral, of someone who does whatever they want no matter the cost and who refuses to follow the rules. Even if she has noble intentions, her execution is always designed to cause chaos.
Much of the character involves a reconciling of her light and dark sides, with Estella and Cruella almost serving as separate characters that reflect each other. Cruella’s naked ambition is only a gleam in Estella’s eye, while Estella’s emotional core is turned into hard armor when Cruella’s in charge. It’s not so much a split personality as it is a Jem/Jerrica thing, with both personas ending up as different combinations of a character’s personality. Like a true queen, when Estella puts on the Cruella drag, she’s able to free up parts of herself that she hides or neglects, allowing herself to revel in her freedom in new and intoxicating ways.
Much of Cruella and the Baroness’ war is fought with fashion, and this is another area where the film shines. Costume designer Jenny Beavan has worked on everything from Godsford Park to Mad Max: Fury Road (for which she won an Oscar), and she throws all of her experience into the commanding fashions of Cruella. It’s hard to say what the best moment is because there are so many of them. Whether it’s Cruella’s fetish-inspired business wear, the Baroness’ endless supply of haute couture, or a dress reveal that involves lighting a cloak on fire, this is over two hours of the best Best Drag runway you’ve seen in a while.
While the film is an audio/visual delight — the score by Nicholas Britell and the soundtrack selections are all above reproach — it’s the script that often lets Cruella down here. It has a rather confused momentum; it’s not so much an uneven pace as it is a lack of purpose. My advice would have to be that before it left the studio, it should have looked in the mirror and removed at least 15 minutes from its first half.
I hesitate to say that the film has a lack of direction, because director Craig Gillespe does his best to keep every moment of the film interesting, from sweeping POV extended shots to intimate frames for moments of character drama. But that too often seems like an overcompensation for a screenplay that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be or where it wants to go. It’s so focused on Cruella and the Baroness that the supporting cast too often feel extraneous, and even the motivations for the leads sometimes get muddied.
Despite the script sometimes giving them the short end of the stick, there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the supporting cast. Both Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser give fully-committed performances as Jasper and Horace, giving both characters a brand new life. Cruella’s relationship with them evolves the more Estella embraces her Cruella side. They end up serving as a link to Estella’s humanity, with Jasper bringing the heart and Horace the humor. An strong emphasis is placed on cementing the three as a family-by-choice, and the chemistry between all three actors makes it work quite well.
Of special note in the cast is Joel McCrea as Artie, the owner of a vintage fashion store that Cruella employs into her schemes. Disney has declared to be the first openly gay, original character in a Disney live-action film. McCrea himself is gay, and while he doesn’t get much to do here, he’s a delight on screen and works the glam rock, Ziggy Stardust look perfectly. His sexuality is never declared and implied mainly through some pretty heavy queer-coding, although that’s not all bad. He’s unabashedly himself, even declaring that the worst insult is to be called “normal”, and he serves as an effective cheerleader for Cruella’s more rebellious instincts. He’s not nearly the breakthrough that Disney’s press team would have us believe, but he’s a fun time when he’s there. Disney could have done much more with him, even with the shaky script, but in the end I’m not mad about it.
That sentiment actually sums up the entirety of Cruella as a film. A sharper screenplay could have really sent this film into the stratosphere, but even with what he have this is a wicked good time. After all, it’s easy to get lost in the gorgeous fashions and the utterly fabulous performances of the leads until you forget there’s a story going on at all. Even if it answers questions about Cruella de Vil that nobody ever really had, this runway is all slay, all day. This is the glam slam villain jam we didn’t know we needed.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Cruella can be streamed exclusively through Disney+ with Premiere Access.