Looking at Disney from the outside in their recent years as a studio, it’s hard not to see these live-action films based around their animated classics for what they are – guaranteed moneymakers serving as a way to broaden the market of past hits to take in more money. That’s not to discount the work, including pioneering visual effects, that go into these efforts. Still, when so many of these films end up barely registering as a quality piece of cinema, it becomes easier to call it for what it appears to be. This is a long way of saying Cruella sits among some of the standouts in this department. It’s one of the better live-action Disney efforts, as the film has a real pulse and sense of style to give it something extra. It also doesn’t forget to have fun, even while dealing with one of Disney’s most notorious villains.
Serving as an origin story for the wicked Cruella de Vil, a prologue explains where this woman came from. As a young girl born with black and white hair, Estella (Tipper-Seifert-Cleveland) had trouble fitting in and was also a troublemaker. The untimely death of her caring mother (Emily Beecham) led to Estella running away to London and befriending a couple of street kids. As grownups, Estella (Emma Stone), Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and Jasper (Joel Fry) get by as pickpockets. Still, Estella has dreams of being a fashion designer, which eventually becomes a reality once a chance encounter leads her to be hired by Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson).
As a Disney feature that has decided to focus on a villainous character, I only expected so much darkness to creep into the story. I was sure the film would be happy to do plenty with costume design, given how much of a role that’s always played with anything related to 101 Dalmations. In fact, 102 Dalmations was an Oscar nominee for Best Costume Design. With that in mind, there are certainly things I did see coming, as any regular movie watcher can guess what sort of tricks this film has up its sleeves fairly early on. However, that doesn’t take away from a movie where the plot is somewhat inconsequential.
That’s a bit strange to say, as Cruella is more or less modeled as a superhero origin story. Think Batman, were the Dark Knight to be far more invested in making sure his cape and cowl looked fabulous, and Joker, Penguin, and the Riddler were competing department store heads. Regardless, the middle portion of the film, its strongest section, sets up a scenario where Estella takes on the disguise of a dangerous and outrageous fashion designer known as Cruella. Her purpose is to cause mayhem by showing off superior fashion designs during events thrown by the Baroness. You see, the Baroness is pretty wicked in her own right, taking credit for everything, including the work by Estella, who has a keen sense of what would be the best way to go for various dress and gown designs.
Not hurting one bit is the setting. Cruella takes place during 1970s London, specifically as the punk rock subculture is taking shape. Director Craig Gillespie and his crew have a ball with this. In addition to a rockin’ 70s soundtrack, the film is packed with a wide assortment of costumes ranging from traditional designs to the very stylized natures of the Baroness and Cruella.
To counter the more subtle blues and greens, set-piece moments feature heavy use of black & white and red. It’s the sort of clash that allows for a noticeable understanding of the visuals on display, let alone feeding into the punk rock atmosphere, and how that clashes with the times. Not hurting is Gillespie’s choice to have the camera feel very fluid. Several long takes (with some visual effects assistance) zoom through the different environments to better help this 134-minute movie keep moving along.
Naturally, for all the style found in this film, one would ideally want to enjoy the cast assembled to better make this a worthwhile effort. Coming after Betty Lou Gerson as the voice of Cruella in the original animated feature, and Glenn Close’s two times going huge with the part in live-action form, Stone is undoubtedly game to go as big as needed as well. Being set in a stylized 70s London, the choices for Cruella seem less about authenticity and more about attitude. Being a crime-comedy of sorts, having a fairly broad performance that makes the best out of playing both a put-upon hard worker and this outrageous dressmaker allows for a fun enough take on a role already made iconic.
Additionally, the solid support from Fry and Hauser is enjoyable enough. The two ride the line of being bumbling and sweet-natured, despite their disposition to steal things, and the less said about Fry’s casting as a black lackey, the better, as far as Disney is concerned. Regardless, the fact that they are aided by various dogs is a fun touch as well, as the film does enjoy making certain suggestions involving Cruella/Estella’s actual cruelness vs. what’s become legend. And bonus points for me, at this point, not knowing when the dogs are real and when they are CG.
Other characters come and go. Jon McCrea gets to have some nice chemistry with Stone as Artie, a fashion expert and friend to Cruella, and a role you kind of expect in a movie obsessed with fashion. Mark Strong is around long enough for you to wonder why an actor as noticeable as Strong would be needed until it becomes obvious. Of course, the most prominent supporting role is Thompson, who walks a fine line of overtaking the film with her callous-yet-humorous persona. It’s hard not to think of Meryl Streep’s role in The Devil Wears Prada when it comes to Thompson, but then again, when there’s a key example in place, no reason not to embrace it and try and make it one’s own. As it stands, the Baroness is the kind of villain you’d expect in a film like this, and Thompson knows how to play this character.
Even as a film that’s too long and somewhat episodic, there’s enough energy coming out of Cruella to make me wish many of these other Disney remakes could have invested in doing more than slavishly redoing scenes that worked perfectly fine in animated form. While there’s no real pattern to which of these films have been the most successful, the best efforts (The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) at least made creative choices in how to expand the stories or go in entirely new directions. Cruella is a film that can be appropriately described as all style and little substance, but it at least feels like there’s a heart. It’s a film that feels like it was actively trying to do more than be a box office hit, and it benefits.