Cruella is a comedy film based on the antagonist of The Hundred and One Dalmatians novel and the latest entry in Disney’s new “remake all their animated movies” regime. On the bright side, less like the live-action Lion King’s near shot-for-shot approach, Cruella offers a new story and vision for its character, acting as a prequel, similar to Maleficent. I was skeptical about Disney’s new film, in the same way I am skeptical about nearly all of them. As much as I enjoyed the Jungle Book, for instance, I couldn’t have cared less about Beauty and the Beast, the Alice in Wonderland films, or Dumbo. The addition of the delightful Emma Stone did pique my interest, however, as did some promotional shots I’d seen for the film. I went into the film with a lukewarm, half-interested expectation, and found myself modestly surprised by the film we received.
Something I was apprehensive about was Disney attempting to have Cruella as our film’s protagonist. I write for the Nightmare Shift, after all, and Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built will make Cruella look like a petty criminal, at best. I’m always game for new and unique perspectives, the more challenging, the better. The only fear I had was that Disney would attempt, too hard, to make Cruella a sympathetic character.
Early on, our premise is established. Estella is a talented child with behavioral issues, dubbed “Cruella” by her mother as a result. Her mother stops by a party hosted by wealthy Baroness von Hellman to ask for financial aid, and the mother is sent off a cliff by the Baroness’ Dalmatians. The film sees Estella on-the-run, befriending two thieves named Jasper and Horace, and living a simple, modest life. However, as she begins to uncover more about her mother’s death and the Baroness, she begins to seek revenge and opportunities to wreak havoc.
Looking at the premise shown, I could not blame you for cringing or rolling your eyes with a small smirk. I know I had that reaction early on as well, especially the part about the Dalmatians being responsible for her mother’s death. So, that’s why she hates Dalmatians! Oh…, but, as the film goes on, you realize that isn’t what they’re suggesting, and Cruella doesn’t appear to hold a whole lot of resentment to them in-particular. She even shows them kindness on occasion. It is still a very Disney thing to do, for certain, but it works more in the film than it does on paper.
Emma Stone is as delightful as I could have hoped for in her performance as Cruella, and Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the Baroness offers her an enjoyable antagonist to bounce off of. Their battle of wits is the glue that holds the film together, along with the aesthetic. The rest of the characters are par for the course, and the storyline itself is mostly weaved together by predictable plot threads. Thankfully, however, that doesn’t matter as much as it should because Cruella is quite simply a lot of fun.
Emma Stone’s performance feels like a Disney-esque interpretation of The Joker (which is an obvious comparison to make having seen the film), always plotting and orchestrating elaborate ways to create mayhem. Unlike the film Joker, which makes a statement on mental illness (a film I liked a lot), I appreciated that this film acknowledged it, but didn’t try and make that same statement. When I say it reminded of Joker, I refer more to The Dark Knight’s Domino effect of anarchy. Cruella is unhinged, and even when she’s went in one direction, it feels like she can turn on a dime depending on the mood she’s in. She’s villainy and “extra”, and although she feels darker and bolder than the average Disney live-action villain, it doesn’t try to cover it with labels and asterisks.
This isn’t to say there aren’t moments when Emma Stone is allowed to bring depth or heartfelt motivation to the character, as I think her portrayal is something to rally behind. Only that, it’s mostly in a very straightforward, rebellious hero way.
The film’s presentation is slick and stylish in a way where you can tell they were specifically going for something slick and stylish. The costume designs are fantastic and the visual-style offers a level of high-production, yet grimy spectacle that I really enjoyed. The visuals in this film, and the grandiose approach, really accomplish a sense of “epic-ness”, I would have never anticipated from a film about Cruella.
The ways Cruella combats the Baroness, one involving a dumpster, the other, a couple thousand-something locusts, were memorable, distinct, and, most importantly for this film, entertaining.
I went into this film expecting a safe, by-the-numbers Disney live-action film like I’ve seen time and time again. I expected something either averagely satiable like Aladdin, or forgettable and run-of-the-mill, and instead, what I received was a genuinely enjoyable film. I don’t want to oversell it, by any means, and there is definitely a “style over substance” argument to be made, but, for a lineup of films so bereft of new, original style, I bought into it. I’d recommend Cruella, not as a great film, but as a fun film.