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In case you needed reminding: The One Hundred and One Dalmatians franchise has never been about the dogs. No — its real star is Cruella de Vil, the acerbic, deliciously biting antagonist with an unhinged fur obsession.
Betty Lou Gerson voiced the character in the 1961 Disney animated film, investing the villain with wit, haughtiness and an understated charm. Glenn Close came next in 1996’s live-action 101 Dalmatians, all but — excuse the hyperbole — revolutionizing the role. Cruella, in Close’s claws, was sharper, more menacing and, with her untamed, two-tone black-and-white hair, scarlet lipstick and maniacal laugh, frankly iconic. To fill her shoes — or should I say her furs — is a daunting undertaking. But it’s one Emma Stone tackles with admirable hustle and considerable charisma in Disney’s new Cruella.
Stone’s task in this fitfully fun, frenzied, beautifully costumed version directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) is to help us understand a Cruella-in-progress — the person she was before she started kidnapping and skinning puppies. I admit to finding it hard to picture Stone going so flamboyantly savage; despite her lauded work in La La Land and The Favourite, the actress will, for me, forever be Olive from Easy A. But I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.
Running roughly 2 hours and 16 minutes, Cruella pursues a long, at times slow, path to contextualizing the titular figure’s origins. The film begins in 1960s England with young Cruella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), birth name Estella, struggling to fit in. There are early signs of the woman she will become: When her mother (Emily Beecham) admonishes her for not following a prescribed pattern while sewing, Cruella, precocious and unfazed, snaps, “That’s ugly,” before ripping her mother’s work to shreds.
She doesn’t fare much better at school, where her bicolored hair makes her a target for bullies and her attempts at self-defense land her in the dean’s office. Her only friend is Anita Darling (first played by Florisa Kamara, later by Kirby Howell-Baptiste). With Cruella on the verge of being expelled, her mother pulls her out of school, packs their bags and off to London they go.
On the road, the pair stop at a magnificent country home. Cruella’s mother, hushed and vague, commands her daughter to stay in the car. But ever the rebel, Cruella, her rescue puppy in tow, sets out to explore the grounds. What she finds in the house — an opulent fashion show replete with gorgeous gowns — blows her mind and warms her aspiring-designer heart. “For the first time in my life,” she marvels via voiceover, “I felt like I belonged.”
Mayhem ensues and Cruella finds herself running from security guards and three angry Dalmatians, ending up on the estate’s veranda, where she sees her mother talking to a mysterious figure. In an unexpected turn, the dogs attack Cruella’s mother, pushing her off the terrace’s edge.
Her death haunts Cruella, who goes to London, where she links up with a band of orphan thieves (Ziggy Gardner’s Jasper and Joseph MacDonald’s Horace). Now played by Stone, our protagonist also spends much time at war with herself: Should she embrace Estella, the kind, well-behaved girl her mother wanted her to be, or go all in as anarchic, angry Cruella? Stone assuredly embodies this tension, shifting between wide-eyed Estella and diabolical Cruella without ever losing the thread — a deep desire to be seen — that connects them.
As the story moves into the 1970s, Cruella, thanks to Jasper (now played by Joel Fry) and Horace (now played by Paul Walter Hauser), lands a job at a prestigious fashion house. Here the film veers into Devil Wears Prada terrain — Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote that 2006 hit, has a story credit on the film — and it’s a thrill to see Stone and Emma Thompson, sly and funny as the Miranda Priestley-esque Baroness in charge of the house, gnash their teeth at each other.
Their interplay is the main attraction in a film that wears genre loosely, lurching between dark comedy and heist thriller with an over-reliance on cross-cutting and on-the-nose musical cues to manufacture tension. The extent to which the titular figure has been sanitized and softened is also a bit disappointing: This Cruella is more revenge-seeking designer giving #girlboss energy than morally bankrupt dog murderer. (The film sidesteps that part of Cruella’s story altogether.) And while no one will be coming to Cruella for astute sociopolitical criticism, the movie underutilizes London’s punk rock revolution moment, treating it as fodder for Cruella’s aesthetic without teasing out the causes that inspired it. It feels like a missed opportunity for a subversiveness that would have deepened and expanded the film’s vision.
What Cruella lacks in script, however, it makes up for in sheer visual punch, with costume designer Jenny Beavan’s exquisitely detailed gowns especially enriching the angsty, sinister universe the film conjures. From Thompson’s glamorous plaid gold suit and show-stopping dresses to Stone’s lace-trimmed gloves, peplum skirts and one adventurous frock made of newspaper, the costumes are architectural and aesthetic feats that pay homage to designers from Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano to Alexander McQueen.
Ironically, contrary to the disposition of its titular character, Cruella requires dialing down the cynicism and buying in a little. But after such a wretchedly constrained and constricted year, who isn’t ready to revel in a little chaos?
Production companyies: Gunn Films, Marc Platt Productions, TSG Entertainment, Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriters: screenplay by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara; story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis
Producers: Andrew Gunn, Kristin Burr, Marc Platt, Mark Mostyn
Executive producers: Emma Stone, Michelle Wright, Jared LeBoff, Glenn Close,Aline Brosh McKenna, Jessica Virtue,
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Composer: Nicholas Britell
Casting director: Lucy Bevan, Mary Vernieu
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