“Born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad.”
Bookended by two outrageous and fantastic performance by a pair of Hollywood’s best Emmas, Cruella scrapes a PG-13 grit through the lens of the memorable 101 Dalmatians villain. I’d say she is actually one of the most iconic villains of all time. Previously played in live-action iterations (twice by Glenn Close in some of the first live-action Disney remakes, Wendy Raquel Robinson in Disney’s Descendants, Victoria Smurfit in ABC’s Once Upon a Time), this time they snagged Emma Stone to fill the shoes of the infamous fast-driving, loose-tempered fashionista. It’s backstory time as we dive into the origins of her Dalmatian hatred, snappy domineering attitude, and obsession with fashion.
Cruella started off as a young firecracker named Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), but at only 12 years old, she becomes an orphan. Her mother plunges off the edge of a cliff—a horrifying accidental death. She flees with her cute dog Buddy, and ends up alone, penniless, and orphaned in Regent’s Park London, England. The ditzy Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and streetsmart Jasper (Joel Fry) befriend Estella. Jasper invites Estella to join their gang of two, and a friendship is born. It’s a bond so strong that even ten years later, it’s still charging full steam ahead. The trio (and their scrappy dogs Buffy and Wink, who has a cute little eye patch) plot, scheme, and steal their way into becoming legitimate.
Through it all, Estella longs for more. She wants to make her mom proud. She mourns the loss of a special necklace she dropped all those years ago. Every time she wants to talk to her mother, Estella goes and sits at the fountain in Regent’s Park for awhile. Her mom would’ve wanted more for her. Before long, Jasper’s tinkering helps Estella get a legitimate job doing the janitorial work at one of her favorite clothing spots. The world of her job is first shown to us in a backstage, one shot long take set to “Time of the Season”, until we find her all the way at the very rock bottom of the social ladder. Estella longs to be a designer—she tries everything she can think of, but her boss hugely under-appreciates her. “Why are you talking and not cleaning,” he barks at her.
It’s not until Estella gets plastered and ends up sleeping overnight in a flashy window display she makes in an angry intoxicated stupor that her life is uprooted entirely. Just as she’s getting fired and being dumped to the curve, legendary fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson) storms into the store. “That’s a better window display than I’ve seen in 10 years,” croons Thompson in a rare display of genuine admiration. The Baroness immediately commands one of her goons to give a business card to Estella, validating her talent and technique.
From here, the film shifts gears into The Devil Wears Prada mode, as we are exposed to the evil Miranda Priestly-like methods, and often aggressively selfish behavior of The Baroness. In one scene, she pops a cork in someone’s eye and tells them to “go.” Another features a tantrum where she throws a chair at a servant—“you’re in the way.” She’s just an absolutely terrible person. “Well, you’re fired,” she tells an employee for turning in a subpar dress, in her tactless approach to human interaction. She uses her taser on a maid! The Baroness is the type to toss her to-go box out the window of a moving car with zero care for where it ends up. She says Estella’s mom “only had one person to take care of, and she failed dismally.” Thompson delivers every zinger with calculated personality.
Estella, whose star begins to rise working under The Baroness, notices something troubling: the very necklace her mom left behind that fateful night. The Baroness was there! Now, she keeps it under lock and key (and laser security!) when it’s not around her neck. From the second Estella discovers the necklace, the idea for a distraction creates her alter ego, Cruella. With the help of Horace and Jasper (both of whom receive considerably more depth and character than ever before), the trio craft an infallible scheme to snatch that necklace. After making a flashy performance that rivals anything The Baroness is able to accomplish, Cruella becomes a cat-and-mouse rivalry where one constantly tries to outstage the other. Cruella’s personality begins to bleed into Estella’s, blurring the lines between the two. With dramatic highs, gorgeous reveals, and splendid acting, this easily ranks as one of my favorite Disney live-action movies.
The fashion here is eye-popping and stunning. Every single one of Cruella’s distinct looks belongs on an actual runway. Every bit of each garment is constructed in support of Emma Stone’s form. She fits outfits like a model. My favorite of the bunch were an incredible flame-reveal dress, and a dazzling gown made of garbage and scraps. The costuming and hairstyling both deserve an Oscar nomination. Each scene is not only another excuse for an extravagant couture look, but also the razzle-dazzle of its poppy soundtrack chock full of old-school hits.
The area I was most concerned about—sticking to the character’s inherent ‘cruel’ roots—is where I found 2014’s Maleficent to be deeply flawed. In humanizing the evil character of Cruella De Vil, would they ruin everything that was so great about her? Maleficent is supposed to be the literal “mistress of all evil,” so that was a major flop on their part into making her so sympathetic. The writers of Cruella (5 credited include Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis) are smart about the gaps they fill in the character. They respect the eventual lore by skirting around the animal abuse and mutilation, and embracing the darkness of both the fashion world and Cruella’s psyche. They throw in her bonkers driving skills in a move that will please fans.
Emma Stone makes Cruella a relatable, flawed, and complicated woman who craves the appreciation of her talents, and domination over the fashion landscape. She certainly makes a solid argument for her popularity. I’m pretty sure that punk-rock runway song, John McCrea’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” will be stuck in my head all week. Emma Stone’s line delivery of “I’m gonna kill you and your dogs” made me giddy. Her Cruella looks stylish and gorgeous, even with a fake mustache and pageboy hat. Stone fills Cruella’s high-heeled shoes with gleeful abandon.
Crafting an origin story rich with complexity, Fright Night, I Tonya, and Lars & The Real Girl director Craig Gillespie rings out incredible acting performances from Emma Thompson and Emma Stone. Stylish flair, like the pop of fashion reveals and the zippy headlines about the industry, layer on top of the 70s London vibes. Nailing Cruella’s character, an impossibly difficult feat, proves Emma Stone as the 2nd accomplished Oscar-winner to portray her. Co-produced by the OG live-action Cruella herself, Glenn Close, there’s a sense that it respects the theatricality of her performance while taking things in a decidedly darker and grittier direction. A mid-credits scene shows that the Disney machine really knows its audience via a splendid ode to the 101 Dalmatians of yesteryear, so make sure you stick around for it! “A low cut skirt is a lifesaver, girls—remember that.”
Cruella is in theaters everywhere, and available on Disney+ premium access for an additional $29.99 fee.