Review: Craig Gillespie's 'Cruella' Offers Sympathy for the de Vil
by Adam Frazier
May 26, 2021
Dodie Smith's 1956 children's novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians originally introduced the world to Cruella de Vil, a fashion-obsessed heiress who kidnaps a litter of Dalmatian puppies to create a spotted fur coat. When Walt Disney read the book back in 1957, he immediately obtained the rights and assigned Bill Peet (Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty) to write the animated adaptation. 1961's 101 Dalmatians was a worldwide box office success, so much so that it was re-issued to cinemas four times: in 1969, 1979, 1985, and 1991. In 1996, Disney released a live-action version, starring Glenn Close as the iconic fashion criminal. Both the animated film and the live-action movie have spawned sequels, but now the franchise's villain is getting her own origin story with Cruella, starring the Academy Award winner Emma Stone.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (of Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm, I, Tonya) from a screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, Cruella is a revisionist take on the classic story, taking the fur-crazy villain and turning her into something of a punk antihero. It's 1964 and Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is an ambitious young girl with dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but the death of her mother (Emily Beecham) forces her to set aside those aspirations for a life of crime instead. Aided by fellow Dickensian orphans Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), and a couple of adorable pups — Buddy and Wink — Estella survives by picking the pockets of London's elite.
Ten years later, Estella (Emma Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are pulling off sophisticated con jobs, with Estella using her wicked imagination and sewing skills to create clever disguises. Things change when Estella gets an opportunity to leave her life of crime behind and go legit by working at Liberty, London's luxury department store. There, her striking window display catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman (Academy Award winner Emma Thompson), the world's leading fashion designer and head of the prestigious House of Baroness label, who offers her a job. Finally, after years of grifting and barely getting by, Estella has found the perfect mentor to help her achieve everything she's always desired.
Unfortunately for Estella, the elegant but abrasive Baroness isn't a mentor so much as a tyrant, ruling over her staff with an icy demeanor and a cruel wit. While she recognizes Estella's talent, she refuses to give her any of the credit, claiming all her protégé's designs as her own. Things are complicated further when Estella spots the Baroness wearing a necklace that belonged to her mother before her untimely death. What follows is essentially The Devil Wears Prada by way of Guy Ritchie; Estella hatches a plan to heist the necklace with the help of Jasper and Horace while upstaging the Baroness at her Black and White Ball. Along the way, she meets Artie (John McCrea), a Bowie-esque shopkeeper who helps her make a spectacular entrance at the Ball, not as Estella this time but as Cruella, a flamboyant fashionista with a shock of black-and-white hair.
Gillespie's Cruella shouldn't work, but it does. Reinventing Cruella de Vil as a Vivienne Westwood type (the British fashion designer responsible for bringing punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream) is an interesting angle, giving Stone plenty of room to reinterpret the iconic character. This Cruella doesn’t share the same motivations as her animated counterpart; she isn't an evil puppy-killer. She's something of a provocateur instead. Stone delivers a fantastic dual performance as both Estella and Cruella, aided by great supporting turns by Hauser, Fry, & McCrea. Emma Thompson threatens to steal the show as the Baroness, who ends up being a role model for Cruella instead of Estella. Watching Stone & Thompson, two extremely talented Emmas, play off each other is immensely satisfying as these two dynamic characters clash.
In addition to inspired writing and direction, and some strong performances throughout, Cruella features some stunning pieces by two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (Academy Award winner for Mad Max: Fury Road and A Room with a View). There are so many looks in this film — Stone has a total of 47 costume changes. Even supporting characters like the Baroness, Horace, and Jasper each have 30 different costumes throughout the movie. The amount & quality of work Beavan has delivered here is staggering. Likewise, production designer Fiona Crombie and set decorator Alice Felton (also of The Favourite) capture the look and feel of 1970s London effortlessly, from the recreation of the iconic Liberty of London, to Estella's ramshackle thieves den, as well as the Baroness' extravagantly marbled-and-chandeliered Hellman Hall.
Music producer Susan Jacobs, who had previously collaborated with Gillespie on I, Tonya, incorporates songs from the period to give the film more character. Cruella is wall-to-wall music, featuring songs such as Nina Simone's "Feeling Good", "She's A Rainbow" by The Rolling Stones, "Stone Cold Crazy" by Queen, Blondie's "One Way or Another", the Doors' "Five to One", "Time Of The Season" by The Zombies, and The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog". The music is also a character in and of itself, which may be distracting for some. The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go", for example, wasn't released until 1982, yet it's being used to set the tone for a film set in the mid-70s. Some of these needle drops are fantastic, while others, like a scene at a dog groomers set to Rose Royce's "Car Wash", are a little perplexing. Still, the music, coupled with Gillespie's direction and Nicolas Karakatsanis' cinematography, give the film an undeniable sense of style worthy of its "brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad" main character.
And finally, there is the question of how Cruella ties into 101 Dalmatians. There are characters from the original story, including Roger (Kayvan Novak) and Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and a few notable pups, but should Disney decide to do another live-action remake, it will most certainly be a different take on Dodie Smith's classic novel. Despite easy comparisons to Todd Phillips' Joker and Disney's Maleficient — sympathetic origin stories that reimagine "misunderstood" villains — Cruella understands the assignment better than its predecessors by creating an intriguing movie that stands on its own instead of feeling like the propped-up precursor to a bigger story from other movies. I highly recommend checking out Gillespie's entertaining film when it's released theatrically (or Disney+ with Premier Access) on May 28th this summer.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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