In the spirit of past Walt Disney live action remakes or reimaginations such as Maleficent or Dumbo, comes Cruella, directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) and starring the talented Emma Stone (The Favourite), Emma Thompson (Love Actually), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), Joel Fry (In the Earth), and Paul Walter Hauser (BlackKklansman). This prequel seeks to reframe the infamous Disney villain into a raucous anti-hero, not a crazed killer of innocent puppies, but a revolutionary bent on uprooting convention and staking her own claim amid the false gods guiding public vision. Unlike Maleficent, which is less beholden to the past as it shifts Sleeping Beauty’s villain into a truly sympathetic character, Cruella comes across more as a punk poser, a faux white hat whose potential heroism is overshadowed by her future.
Set primarily in 1970s London, Cruella follows orphan Estella (Stone) living with fellow orphans Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser), pulling cons, pick-pocketing, and generally committing various acts of petty larceny to get by. This all seems to come to an end when Estella, desiring to become a fashion designer more than anything, finds herself working on the upcoming collection for the greatest fashion designer in London, The Baroness (Thompson). Sharing a similar penchant for unique fashion, Estella finds herself growing closer to the cold and calculating Baroness until Estella learns the age old lesson: never get to know your heroes. Shock isn’t something that can put a stopper on Estella, especially when she can always employ her mischievous alter-ego Cruella to turn the tide, turning London upside in the process.
The problem with any prequel is its required attachment to the future. Maleficent dodges this particular bullet by reimagining the story of Sleeping Beauty so that both versions of the character can be true: hero and villain. In the script written by Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Kelly Marcel (Venom: Let There Be Carnage), and Steve Zissis (Togetherness), Cruella tries to adapt who the character is from the original Dodie Smith tale, the animated iteration, and the 1996 adaptation, creating a character that is confounding in being too menacing to root for yet too sweet to be hated. As presented here, she is first the outsider as a child due to her split monochromatic hair and whose form of rebellion is through fashion and taking no guff. There is something truly positive in the representation of a character who isn’t driven by others’ opinions of herself but is strong in self-ideation and actualization. Next, she’s a young woman trying to survive, using her talented skills for less reputable reasons, but it’s these very skills which make her formidable when on the straight and narrow. If this were not so directly tied to who audiences know Cruella to be, the version Stone portrays would not only be entirely delightful to watch, but we would do so with a devilish glee as she rights wrongs using a poetic comeuppance. Instead, by being moored to the past, there is little in the way of surprise in the narrative as the twists are all revealed within the first few minutes. Not to mention that the manner in which the script tries to bend itself away from and around Cruella’s specific Dalmatian-centric animal cruelty future requires some Cirque du Soleil-esque flexibility. Either accept the villain as she is and confront her inevitability (a concern some have regarding making a prequels film for this character) OR make her something else entirely. By addressing it via glib one-liners or references, any attempt at public reform is shallow.
What is most frustrating is the amount of potential on display. Both writers Fox and McNamara understand how to subvert audiences’ expectations for women. For Fox, it’s Isn’t It Romantic where she created a rom-com where the romance is ultimately directed inward. For McNamara, it’s the decadent and devilish The Favourite which not only earned Stone her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but understood that women can get down just as dirty as the men. With these two talented writers at the helm, there’s so much promise for what’s to come. To use the parlance of the fashion industry, their script is the sketch within a look book, the outlines defined, the concept clear, needing only the fabric, inlays, and other details to be made real to give it life. Stone and Thompson are the best parts of the film and bring about some of the best moments in the film. The moment where Estella is singing along to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (evidentially captured in one take on a whim) highlights Stone’s ease and grace with the character, even when Estella is otherwise altered. But where Stone as Estella or Cruella instantly draws your eye, Thompson matches her beat for beat, note for note. Something which the actors share is a mastery of their physicality to the point that each have a moment where their respective faces shift from one mood to another so seamlessly to appear inhuman. It’s unsettling and amazing all at once. The problem comes where the film is so tied to where it needs to go that, in laying little references for the future, the conclusion to this tale is both foreseeable and inevitable, creating an unenviable situation where the fun is temporary at best and lacks any lasting satisfaction.
Thankfully, for a film centered on the fashion industry, it looks fantastic, capturing the innovation and artistry of fashion with such incredible designs that costume designer Jenny Beavan, who won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design for Mad Max: Fury Road, is more than likely on her way to at least another nomination for her work here. It’s not that the concepts are breathtaking, but that they are ingenious and artful in their presentation. They are complex and tell stories all on their own. They are provocative and challenging, yet enticing. One such outfit involves a garbage truck and it’s a surprising one-two punch of an outfit that moves the narrative along while also being absolutely brilliant in design. Much of the designs in Cruella borrow from the period around the 1960s-1970s revolution within London and around the world which saw the rise of antiestablishment movements. All of the outfits Estella creates (i.e. Beavan) tow this line of breaking the chains of what was and creating something bold and new. From a design perspective, the creative team nails the aura of Cruella and the historical reference point are in sync, but, especially in combination with the frequent sampling of music from the era (something which is overused a great deal), Cruella loses its punk façade, revealing a highly manufactured, glossy exterior. This is a Walt Disney production, a studio which is the furthest thing from antiestablishment as it gets, so trying to make Cruella a punk rocker is about as disingenuous as, well, me trying to do the same. Cruella examines duality from the literal black-white split in Estella’s hair to the persona Estella puts on when she does dastardly things to get what she wants. Thus, it is the same with the production: beautiful outfits, smartly designed narrative, and pitch perfect casting all around in contrast to the overuse of sampling to convey meaning, over-reliance on the future to create the past, and an inauthentic representation of what it means to rebel.
If one were to distill the film down to a single word, it would be “romp.” When it works, it works. The cast are obviously having a ball, gleefully playing the provocateur while jumping costumes and personas to go with it. When it doesn’t, it comes apart at the seams. Too shiny to be from the period, too precise to be genuine. It’s empty and, while ultimately fine, there’s little reason to return to it. That said, I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing what happens next and before the 101.
In select theaters and available for purchase on Disney+ Premier Access May 28th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Cruella website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.