Spotty But Worthwhile

A Review of Disney’s Cruella

© 2021 Disney Enterprises Inc.

D: Craig Gillespie
S: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Kayvan Novak, Kirby Howell Baptiste, Mark Strong, John McCrea

Of course, this isn’t the first time a Disney villain headlined a live action flick. Lest we forget, Angelina Jolie did Maleficent in 2014 and we can all agree that she rocked those wavy horns. But while it’s easy to peg that spin-off as a thematic precursor to this revenge caper, the two don’t totally fit the same category. Yes, that had the trappings of an origin story. But what followed was essentially a Sleeping Beauty overhaul, seeing how the fairy-fiend took on a more redemptive arc that invalidated the need for a prince.

In contrast, Cruella reverts to the “atrocities create antagonists” line of thinking. The world is bad. Therefore, people turn bad. It’s the same logic that established Magneto as a Holocaust victim and Todd Philips’ take on Joker as a pariah driven to the edge. And without a doubt, Ms. De Vil is out for blood. Or should I say fur?

Also judging from the punk rock soundtrack and the plot unfolding in Early 70s London, this prequel by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) leads to the more contemporary versions of the tale – not the squeaky clean 1961 cartoon and certainly not Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel. There goes the G rating.

Glenn Close famously embodied the chic dognapper twice before – first, in the 1996 101 Dalmatians remake and again in the ill-advised 2000 sequel.  It’s no surprise that she’s one of the executive producers here. But as far as playing the character is concerned, the baton had to be passed. Sporting the skunk-patterned tresses this time is Emma Stone, who sizzles as the younger version of the villainess. She’s introduced as Estella Miller, an out-of-school upstart forced to shelf her designer dreams after a family tragedy. Orphaned and homeless, she winds up in the company of street urchins Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) who become her de facto kin, and soon, her accomplices in a life of theft and trickery. And as those familiar with the source material would know, they’d eventually become her bumbling henchmen.

Dana Fox and Tony McNamara share screenwriter credit for this reimagining. But actually, theirs was the final version of the script initially drafted by Aline Brosh McKenna, who notably wrote 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. She still gets story credit, and rightfully so. Because, intentional or not, the parallelisms are made apparent when Estella is employed by nasty fashion designer Baroness von Hellman, played with diabolical allure by Emma Thompson. The scenario sure feels like Andy Sachs-meets-Miranda Priestley all over again. Only, this Andy’s a sociopath and this Miranda’s infinitely more ruthless. Case in point: Instead of being fazed at the sight of blood, she asks her fabrics team: “Will you get me a red like that?”

It’s later revealed that the death of Estella’s mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham) was more than a freak accident. Naturally, it ignites Estella’s thirst for revenge and fear of Dalmatians. Which raises a question pertaining to the original story: Why would anyone grow obsessed over wearing something that triggers a traumatic memory? It barely makes sense, and neither do certain bits of this prequel. And the more we’re introduced to familiar characters, like Roger (Kayvan Novak), still a lawyer, and Anita (Killing Eve’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste), still a tabloid columnist, the more the justifications feel forced and flimsy. Perhaps, the best way to enjoy without noticing the tonal disconnect from the original story is to treat this one as a standalone.

Fortunately, the fun amplifies once Estella fully embraces her alter-ego and starts devising ways to upstage and sabotage the Baroness. Enhancing the visual experience are the elaborate set designs and the eye-popping costumes by Oscar winner Jenny Beaven (Mad Max: Fury Road), who designed 47 looks for the lead. But really, it’s the chemistry between the Dueling Emmas which keeps this whole thing afloat, and for the most part, helps it rise above the contrivances. Seeing them genuinely enjoy the process makes this spotty affair more worthwhile.


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