The "101 Dalmatians" property has been an enduring one for Walt Disney Studios, with the original 1961 film maintaining a strong presence in pop culture mostly thanks to its iconic villain, Cruella De Vil. That status was bolstered even more in the late ’90s/early 2000s when Glenn Close starred as Cruella in two live-action movies, well before Disney’s current spate of live-action remakes of its animated properties.
Now comes a fourth bite at the apple with another live-action film, Cruella, which serves as an origin story for the villain. In this version, we learn that Cruella (Emma Stone) was actually named Estella as a child, with Cruella being a nickname she and her mom reference for when she gets angry and/or mean. She has an affinity for fashion design, especially admiring the work of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a leading designer in 1960s London.
After being orphaned — yep, another Disney orphan — she is taken in by street urchins Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). The three of them work together to scam and steal their way through the city, but Estella maintains her fashion dream. When an opportunity to work for The Baroness comes her way, she grabs on with both hands, but her ambition and secrets she discovers along the way threaten to bring out her Cruella side.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), who’s not known for going the safe route in his career, the PG-13 film is far from your typical Disney movie. Gillespie, along with writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, has delivered a dark and moody story that, while still a lot of fun, does not seem to have an audience of children in mind at all times. The movie eschews almost all goofiness in favor of scenes that emphasize real character development, an unusual choice in a mainstream film where quick and to the point is typically preferred.
In fact, with the fashion focus and a tempestuous mentor/protégé relationship between The Baroness and Estella/Cruella, the film has a real The Devil Wears Prada feel to it. The conversations between those two characters have a crackle to them thanks to the performances of Stone and Thompson, who chew the scenery without ever tipping over into parody.
The general gloominess of the story at large is balanced by the film’s ’60s setting, allowing the filmmakers to indulge in all manner of sartorial fun. While that homage to the time is welcome, they overdo it in the song department, going extremely heavy on ’60s songs to set the mood, and often playing them longer than necessary. Their choices are also a little on the nose for the scenes the songs accompany; cutting them down and leaning more on composer/two-time Oscar nominee Nicholas Brittell would have been a good idea.
Other than the obvious — Estella fully transforming into Cruella — nothing feels preordained about the story. The characters of Horace and Jasper are used for much more than bumbling comedy, and while three mostly CGI Dalmatians are present for much of the film, they’re mostly used as diversions from the main plot instead of being the focus themselves. Even Cruella’s journey feels more authentic than expected, as she’s given honest reasons for feeling hurt and pain instead of being a one-dimensional villain.
Stone, who’s won one Oscar and been nominated two other times, long ago proved her acting bona fides, but she is still astonishingly good in this role. Her line readings, her accent, and her movements all contribute to adding to the lasting allure of Cruella. Thompson is just as good, and if there’s any justice, she’ll be vying for an Oscar at next year’s ceremonies. Hauser and Fry have a great chemistry together, giving depth to their side characters so that they’re not just pushovers.
Everyone involved with Cruella appears to have taken great care in making sure it was higher quality than the typical Disney live-action film, and it shows. While it’s more refined than your usual movie aimed at kids, it still has lot to offer viewers of all ages.
Cruella is in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access.