Disney’s recent series of live-action remakes and updates of their library of classic animated films have been, to be generous, let’s say, a mixed bag. That’s not to say that they are unpopular, but most of them feel to me like they are unnecessary. This is especially true with the direct remakes, such as The Lion King or Dumbo.
Cruella takes a page from Maleficent‘s book. Rather than being a simple update of a film we already know and love (and already have a remake of), and tells the origin story of Cruella De Vil, the dog murdering villain from 101 Dalmations. This gives it more freedom to be its own thing, and the results are that it manages to capture the spirit of an animated film while adding the production value of a live-action film starring two Oscar winners.
In short, it’s one of the best of these movies so far.
Emma Stone stars as Estella, a young wannabe fashion designer whose mother dies by falling off a cliff near the start of the film. She ends up homeless and alone in London, where she meets Jasper and Horace, the Badun brothers (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively). After a childhood and teenage years of running cons and heists, they get her a job at a clothing store for a birthday present. She eventually meets Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the preeminent fashion designer of this world’s 1960s and 1970s.
Naturally, it comes out that the Baroness is evil and was directly involved in the death of Estella’s mother. So Estella transforms herself into Cruella, the name her mother called her when she was a naughty child. A fierce rivalry erupts, with Cruella attacking from the outside and Estella agitating from the inside of The Baroness’s organization.
In many ways, the story feels like a superhero story, complete with alter egos and big set pieces where the villain is confronted or robbed. The central conflict for the main character is whether she chooses to be Estella or Cruella. Though the film sometimes presents it as though she has dissociative identity disorder, it is a real choice the character has to make: be the woman her mother knew she could be or give in to revenge.
That this works comes down to two people: Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, both of whom are excellent in their roles. Stone brings a charm and manicness to the character that makes it easy to believe that the Baduns would continue to support her as she gets progressively more devious through the story, as well as being sympathetic enough for us to want to keep rooting for her. Stone is an excellent actor, and in this part, she brings her A-game and seems to be having the time of her life. Also –and this is crucial– her evil laugh is pitch-perfect.
Thompson is excellent as always. The Baroness is very casually evil, not filled with rage but with indifference, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling that off so well. There is a scene late in the film where she asks another character to be more specific about a crime that might be one of my favourite line reads in the whole movie.
What truly makes it work though is that their chemistry on screen together is so strong, the constant push-pull of their relationship and rivalry feels natural and believed.
Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser are also good as the Badun Brothers, who are actually somewhat competent in this story and get to be almost all of the films slapstick comedy relief. They actually lend themselves to one of the film’s best aspects, which is that director Craig Gillespie understands that while this movie is live-action, it’s also set in a universe that started with an animated film.
The Baduns are still opposite shaped (one tall and lean, the other short and rotund). There are multiple animal sidekicks, all of which are at least as intelligent as the humans they are paired with, and one of whom has an eyepatch. In one scene, Cruella speeds down the street in her classic Coupe De Ville and bounces off parked cars left and right, sending sparks flying just as they would in an animated feature. Even the characters body language and delivery feels like something out of a classic animated film.
Additionally, Cruella seems like it must be a lock for every costume and makeup award for this year, dozens of costumes for Stone to vamp around in, each of which is meticulously detailed and, if I’m honest: stunning. Similarly, the soundtrack by Nicholas Britell is well worth mentioning as another hit in his fast-growing repertoire of great scores, too.
There are a few places in which the film doesn’t fully work. Neither Stone, Hauser, nor Fry is really believable as being in their early 20s (Stone is 32, Hauser 34, and Fry 36). The soundtrack is full of needle drops, and many of them are excellent choices for the 1970s time period, but some are a little on the nose, and, 134 minutes, the film does feel slightly overlong. These are all pretty minor nitpicks, though. Overall, Cruella is fun, funny, and has style for days.
Cruella will be released in select theatres and on Disney+ as a premium rental on Friday, May 28th.
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