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Since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland grabbed handfuls of eat me cake to become a ginormous box office smash, Disney have really started their live-action remake train rolling. It seems that with each passing year we have armfuls of new live-action remakes/reboots/prequels/sequels of their animated classics being primed for release. Thus far the results have been consistently enjoyable, if varying, with the finest probably being Jon Favreau’s incredible The Jungle Book in 2016. But, shockingly, their latest offering, Cruella, just might be the best since that point.
Much like Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, you might say it was a somewhat challenging task to take one of Disney’s nastiest and most iconic villains and make a film about her origins. Naturally people will struggle to have sympathy for an attempted puppy killing fashion magnate, but Craig Gillespie’s very very pleasant surprise Cruella, does something a little different with the material. And after all, we have already had live-action takes on 101 Dalmatians in Stephen Herek’s underrated 1996 film and its lesser 2000 sequel, memorably starring Glenn Close as De Vil (and Close actually serves as an executive producer on this new take).
This film goes back to Cruella’s childhood, and way before she was the De Vil herself, she was Estella, a young kid struggling to fit in and embrace the simply wretched ethos of “don’t stand out”, and after a personal tragedy, over the next 10 years Estella (Emma Stone) survives as a streetwise young woman alongside mates Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and her trusty dog Buddy. But, her inner rebel is desperate to come out, and as Estella lands a job with the wicked but renowned fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), she soon finds her past has caught up with her and that the Baroness is no friend but the ultimate foe, so maybe it’s time Estella let that inner voice come out to play and became Cruella.
The story/characters/elements we know and love are welcomely recognisable in Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s enjoyable screenplay, so fans ought to be pleased but the film also rather admirably works hard in justifying this unexpected villain origin story, by doing something different with all the pieces and in particular the title character. Yes, you could still argue that this was an inessential story to tell but Gillespie’s film has crafted an alternate take on Dodie Smith’s beloved story and Disney’s animated classic. Not shying away from darkness, this London-based ‘70s punk inspired origin tale is wild, funny and dripping with rage and rebellion. A story of breaking the shackles of societal norms and challenging the ruling classes, this feels quite relevant despite its chosen era, and has much to say about the mental state following trauma, and how one can be pushed around so much in life that they become someone else and do something drastic about it.
While carrying some tragic and vicious themes, this film thunders along with a consistently fun story of revenge and rebirth, while having moments of heart and energy that make it a quite irresistible offering. Think of it as Disney’s take on Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and you are not far off the mark. And like Robbie, Emma Stone utterly transforms into the title role. Capturing both the struggling innocence of Estella and the uncontainable fury of Cruella, she – like previous onscreen Cruella’s before her – does real justice to the part and puts her own defiant stamp on the character. In fact, the casting all round is superb, with Joel Fry being a heart to the film as the compassionate and supportive Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser being comic dynamite as Horace. John McCrea also offers some fabulous support as Cruella’s fashion store owning pal Artie.
The film allows its central character to bounce off each supporting character to different emotional effects for the story and while the movie may lose some of its characters in its whirlwind – Mark Strong’s valet John in particularly feels quite slight and it would have been nice to see more of Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kayvan Novak as Anita and Roger respectively (though that may be being saved for the sequel) – it is never better than when its central showdown occurs. The performances are roundly great from the well chosen cast and while running long, the story undeniably explodes best when it is centred on the battle of fierce fashionistas, Emma Stone and the chilling Emma Thompson! Thompson is really what crafts Cruella into the character we recognise (though obviously this take has softened some edges) and her venomous turn is scene stealing and gleefully dripping in vitriol. And watching Cruella and Hellman’s games of fashion-fueleld oneupmanship is absolutely enthralling.
This fact is made more so by the aesthetics, and in that dimension, Cruella is pretty much a masterpiece. Audio-visually it’s a firecracker of a film and just stunning looking and sounding on the cinema screen (my recommended way to view it, considering the movie is also on Disney+ Premier Access). Two-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan’s costumes are like cast members in themselves and perfectly reflective of the people wearing them and the tones being struck, while the soundtrack is a bursting collection of exciting songs (from Nina Simone and Blondie to Queen and even Ken Dodd) inter-cut with some great scoring by Nicholas Britell, and Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography is equally as exciting.
When the credits (and rather neat post-credits scene) roll on this rollercoaster villain story, I must admit I do wonder how they will progress with this incarnation of Cruella in the inevitable sequel, which looks to be covering the main story we know her for. But after this, that Dalmatian snatching story surely will have to adjust accordingly too. I digress, Cruella is a most unexpected live-action Disney treat that is a confident, stylish, riot of a movie, with a cast enjoying the good in being bad! Fabulous darling!