Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Rated PG-13, 2 hours and 14 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
While Disney’s classic animated iteration of “Cruella De Vil” was a madwoman hell-bent on skinning a slew of Dalmatians for their fur, director Craig Gillespie’s live-action spin-off CRUELLA spotlights an altered, dynamic, yet equally iconic anti-hero. She doesn’t want to kill puppies. She’d rather slay humans with her sick fashion creations. This prequel audaciously reshapes the infamous villain’s narrative, delivering an absolutely divine reimagining of the character. A rebellious punk glam attitude courses through the picture, from its dazzling aesthetics to its cunning character constructions. Deliciously devilish, wonderfully wicked and undeniably outrageous, it’s sensational perfection that’s a must-see on the big screen.
Though she wasn’t born with the name Cruella, she’s always had that persona dwelling inside her. Young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) frequently got into trouble at school, leaving her working-class single mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) at wit’s end. However, her internal battle to remain out of trouble shifts when Estella witnesses a tragedy, leaving her sad and alone. She and her little dog flee to London to become a grifter with the likes of two other clever orphans. Their con artistry is taken to new levels as petty criminals, thanks to her smart fashion designs. But in their adulthood, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) encourage her (Emma Stone) into the straight life, helping to land her a proper job at a fancy department store.
It’s only a matter of time before Estella, once again, goes against the grain, rebelling against stuffy management. Her rule breaking catches the eye of a well-known, wealthy fashion designer, The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who gives the budding ingénue a job at her atelier, a place ruled by fear, tyranny and narcissism. Estella slips right in, designing trendy, on-brand pieces thus impressing her snooty, demanding boss. But just as she’s experiencing a stratospheric ascent in the company ranks, a shocking, life-altering realization compels her to adopt her bad-to-the-bone persona Cruella full-time. And that’s where the mayhem ramps up.
Gillespie populates the picture with a killer soundtrack. He harnesses and embraces the power and profundity of each selection with a cheeky sense of humor and magic. He applies the language of music like Martin Scorsese mafia movies. And though he drops the needle on some expected hits (“These Boots Are Made For Walking” “I Wanna Be Your Dog” “One Way or Another”), it’s the deeper cuts (“She’s A Rainbow” “Five To One”) and covers (“Come Together” “Whole Lotta Love”) that reverberate the loudest. Fiona Crombie’s pristine production design is given moments to sparkle, captured in the energetic montages, where the fluid camera glides in and around interiors like Liberty or in the Baroness’ atelier and home. Editor Tatiana S. Riegel finds a catchy electricity which sparks not only in the comedy, but also in the underlying emotions fueled by vengeance and vulnerability.
CRUELLA’s robust sound and vision owe a lot to the pop punk scene of 70’s London, as well as the thoroughly modern theatricality of Vivian Westwood and Alexander McQueen’s spectacular, eye-popping fashion shows. These influences are strikingly evident in a montage where Cruella upstages her nemesis at events, donning dramatically flowy gowns with diabolically long trains whilst standing atop vehicles or tumbling out of them. In many ways, this is the spiritual successor to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Fashion is a character with no spoken dialogue, yet it constantly threatens to run away with each scene. Costume designer Jenny Beavan (who won an Oscar for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) deserves third billing as her work is integral to the story, showcasing the battling broads’ internal and external psyches. Small details on the costumes make insightful impacts – like the texured checkerboard pattern on Cruella’s coat when she’s locked in a metaphorical chess match with the Baroness, or the cold-blooded Baroness’ snake pattern dress, or her transition from accessorizing with warm gold accents to cool silver once a major reveal transpires.
Stone and Thompson are truly a fabulous pairing and they play the campier, comical undertones to the hilt. Screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, who work from a story by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis, bequeath the duo with purposeful shared moments infused with dark comedy (like their introduction, a shared car ride and drinks together) where they chew up the scenery. They never upstage one another; rather, they go toe-to-toe. Hauser and Fry are terrific as Estella/ Cruella’s crew. They’re animated without being “cartoony,” giving their supporting characters multi-faceted internality and introspection. They’re the heart and humor of this piece. Wink (played by Bluebell and doubles Nala, Dane, Dixie and Mozart), the gang’s mischievous, one-eyed Chihuahua, is the highlight of the animal actors. The filmmakers work her into the schemes hilariously.
That said, other supporting characters are dealt short shrift. While poised to have a broader function in the narrative, Anita is relegated to being a background device. Howell-Baptiste makes the most she can out of her limited material and brief screen time, bestowing the character with a sense of intelligence, wit and fortitude. Mark Strong also goes surprisingly under-served and under-utilized (ironic, since he’s a butler whose job it is to serve).
Mesmerizing and whimsical, even amidst the darker overtones (ones absent from the MALEFICENT movies), callbacks to the original animated feature are fun and capably handled. Despite some of the smudges around its sharp edges, CRUELLA sits pretty on the list with THE JUNGLE BOOK and PETE’S DRAGON as one of the best live-action features based on Disney’s existing properties.
CRUELLA debuts in theatres and on Disney+ with Premier Access starting May 28th.