Review: Cruella

Arguably, there is no Disney villain more famous or iconic than Cruella de Vil, being frequently cited by critics and filmgoers as one of the best antagonists ever put to film. A character of such infamy is richly deserving of a standalone feature, and one that should imitate her madcap personality if it is to truly honour her.

Estella Miller (Emma Stone) is the textbook example of an outcast – born with distinctive black-and-white hair, left orphaned at an early age, and constantly rebelling against societal norms, she has known nothing but isolation her entire life. Though she lives a rather bleak existence, Estella does have company in the form of Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), themselves orphans, who earn their keep by thieving from London’s wealthiest residents.

Estella’s fortunes change when she lands a job at a prestigious department store, where she hopes to further her dream of becoming a fashion designer, only for her ideas to be met with indifference. Eventually, and quite by chance, her radical work captures the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), England’s most famous and influential fashionista, who invites Estella to design exclusively for the Hellman label.

Cruella is the latest in a succession of re-imaginings from Walt Disney Pictures and, oddly enough, the third to include the dognapping villainess. The first such instance was 1996’s 101 Dalmatians – a John Hughes-penned retelling of the classic animated feature – which saw American actress Glenn Close assume the mantle of Ms de Vil, and deliver one of the most entertaining performances in a Disney film ever. Indeed, so beloved was Close’s Cruella that she got to play the antagonist again in a loosely connected sequel, 102 Dalmatians.

To succeed acting of such calibre would be a daunting task for most thespians, but not Emma Stone, who appears supremely comfortable in the title role. It’s a fact that should come as no surprise to anybody, since the young actress has demonstrated her prowess in both dramas and comedies for over a decade now, talent that was certified by an Academy Award-winning performance in La La Land. Surprisingly, Stone’s performance here leans more toward the dramatic than the comedic, and at times appears rather subdued.

Part of the reason for Stone’s passiveness is the conflicted nature of her character. Cruella argues that, much like her hairstyle, there’s a light and dark side to the eponymous antiheroine – there’s her gentle, conformist personality known as Estella, and her wrathful, rebellious one which she dubs Cruella. So, rather than presenting her as a cartoonish villain as per the previous Dalmatians films, this picture has put forward a version of the character who is far more nuanced, relatable and human than expected.

Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) in Cruella

Unfortunately, in offering a tamer iteration of Cruella de Vil, audiences are robbed of what makes the woman with two-tone locks so appealing. Ever since she made her big-screen debut, there are certain trademarks with which Disney’s fashion-loving antagonist has been associated, including (but not limited to) her maniacal laugh, caustic insults and unbridled anger, traits that entertain and frighten in equal measure. Said trademarks are in short supply in Cruella, and in the few instances they do appear, they’re rather muted.

What its leading lady lacks in eccentricity, Cruella more than makes up for elsewhere, and that’s thanks to the input of director Craig Gillespie. Viewers with a keen eye will note that Cruella shares many a similarity with Gillespie’s previous and much-lauded feature I, Tonya, such as the free-wheeling cinematography of Nicolas Karakatsanis, the fast-paced editing of Tatiana Riegel, the fourth-wall-breaking narration of its female lead, and a pop-rock soundtrack lifted straight from Martin Scorsese’s vinyl collection, all of which is a delight.

If there’s one problem with this approach, it’s that it feels restrained when compared to Gillespie’s other picture – and not because the characters refrain from swearing. Cruella is overall a less energetic movie than I, Tonya, lacking its forebear’s rapid tempo, fun cutaways and acerbic humour, and failing to provide any jaw-dropping moments of wonder. But, given this is a Disney property, it’s probably for the best that Cruella holds back, because doing otherwise could potentially alienate the brand’s devotees.

While said devotees will be satisfied with the tone, they are quite unlikely to appreciate the retconning of the Dalmatians franchise. See, Disney has been rather loose with the truth in labelling Cruella a prequel; in actuality, the film is a quasi-reboot that lays the groundwork for sequels and other potential spin-offs, a la Maleficent. In other words, what’s being presented here isn’t an origin story for a fur-tapping madwoman, but the rewriting of a character to suit modern tastes, which works. For the most part.

Cruella is the kind of film that more live-action remakes should emulate, being visually flamboyant, emotionally resonant, and unafraid to stray from convention. It’s also a picture that sees Emma Stone’s grand form continue unabated, with the Oscar-winner adding yet another stellar, if lowkey, performance to her already impressive resumé.

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