Maleficent; that was the first thing that came to mind when I heard they were giving Cruella Deville her own live-action prequel/origin story. The unwatchable cinematic butchery that was Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” made it impossible for me not to dread what backward, hack story editing job Disney would perform on Cruella’s story in order to make her more likable, relatable, or some other totally inconsistent perception that has never been associated with the cruel fashion designer since her cinematic debut back in 1961. Cruella is an odd choice for an origins story and I never was her biggest fan, to begin with, but the unique setting piece and distinctive style gave this film an intriguing edge that I thought and hoped would work well.
At the young age of 12, Estelle suffers a horrid tragedy as she loses her home, her mother, and her school in one wicked night. After surviving off the streets for 4 years through thievery with her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), a grown-up Estelle (Emma Stone) finds herself stumbling into an opportunity to enter the fashion world and make an honest living working for the Baroness (Emma Thompson) as an up and coming fashion designer. As secrets become revealed, Estelle wishes to remake herself for this new life and get revenge on those who wronged her in the past. Now Estelle is making her big debut and becoming who she was destined to be; despite how many hearts and lives she has to ruin in the process.
Unlike Maleficent who lives in a fantasy world of dragons and magic, “Cruella” transports us to a very believable and, dare I say, understandable existence for the villainess-to-be to inhabit. We see her from the literal beginning all the way to her rise to power and fame. The fashion landscape provides a unique environmental structure to mold our hero/villain into the witch she will one day become, and I have to say, after watching this film I can actually see this young Estelle/Cruella turning into the bony, cackling witch from the original animated film down the line. “Cruella” constantly shifts our perception of the character; showing her violent, aggressive side as well as her lonely, ambitious side to make us neither fully support her but neither do we fully condemn her. In the grand scheme of grand schemers, Cruella’s evil ambitions are considerably smaller compared to the likes of Scar, Hades or Ursula. Therefore, this approach works well with Cruella’s backstory and makes it easier to connect with her.
They say the devil is in the details and there is no greater detailed devil than in the choice to have Emma Stone play the future, Ms. Deville. She is completely immersed in the character; diving fully into her personality, her eccentricities, and her outlandish presence. Stone plays Cruella like a living embodiment of damaged goods; longing to wish for a better life and yet twisting yourself into the deep end of the pool at the risk of drowning in the darkness you once stood against. We see signs of her worst behaviors bubbling to the surface as the film progresses, including towards Horace and Jasper, who become so much more 3 dimensional and personal to her backstory; it makes their inevitable devolution into hired goons in the future all the more tragic. As for our villain’s villain, Emma Thompson steals the show almost as much as Emma Stone does. She’s a perfectly cold, shrewd woman who rivals Cruella imperfectly in every way.
The use of fashion, both as a weapon as and as cinematic eye candy was the most impressive and surprising aspect of the whole film. Cruella’s style is perfectly embodied in the costume designs. They feel like living, flowing works of art; warped into numerous unique styles that even make trails of garbage dangling from a dump truck look fashionable. The few areas of weakness I felt needed enhancing fell with Cruella’s evil nature (this is a Disney film after all so naturally much will be held back) and also the soundtrack. “Cruella” is a 2 hour 60 and 70’s jukebox; blasting oldies from those eras almost every 10 minutes. Unlike “Guardians of the Galax” which used its soundtrack as a part of the film’s narrative, “Cruella” just bombards you with so many songs the movie cannot feel like it can’t breathe on its own. It’s like we get it, we know what era we’re in; just let the movie be and give the natural sounds some breathing room.
Overall, “Cruella” is a considerable improvement after the disastrous approach they took to Sleeping Beauty with “Maleficent.” Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are beyond incredible. Their performances truly break them both into new territories and the unique blending of trauma, adventure, heist themes, and fashion themes work surprisingly well together. The music can be a bit overbearing and I do wish Disney would take a bigger chance on keeping their villains’ roots black as their hearts but this is a grand step in the right direction. “Cruella” isn’t exactly what I thought it would be but it’s definitely something I want more of.
Photo Credit: Screenshot from Walt Disney Studios’ YouTube channel
I give “Cruella” 3 stars out of 4 stars.