For people of my age, Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil is iconic nightmare fuel. Learning that Disney was planning an origin story for this classic villain, starring Emma Stone no less, seemed doomed to fail. Thankfully, Cruella is a triumph and Emma Stone delivers a brilliantly layered and nuanced performance, all while gnawing the scenery to pieces.
Set in London in the 60s and 70s, Cruella recontextualises her history, motivations and sartorially inspired canine homicide.
Beginning with her birth, when she was named Estella, and narrated by the fully grown Cruella, we learn about her early years as a young girl conflicted by duality. Like her hair, one side, the Estella side, is kind and sweet and wants to do the right things to make her mum proud. The Cruella side is naughty, mischievous and brilliant.
Like many real-life geniuses, Estella/Cruella has conflict within and is plagued by her personal demons. The greatest of which is the guilt she carries, believing she was the cause of her mother’s untimely death of which she was a witness to.
Alone, scared and with no place to turn, Estella takes to the streets of London where she meets two urchins and finds her family. 10 years pass and the three, now adults, run grifts, pick pockets and survive through petty crime.
Estella longs for more though, dreaming of a life of fashion and design. A chance encounter with The Baroness, Emma Thompson putting a decidedly evil spin on Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, catapults Estella into the world she’s dreamed of for so long.
Unfortunately, and as Cruella tells the audience, life isn’t that simple. More often than not, you don’t get the happy ending and the roll credits. And it’s not long after her dreams start coming true that things start to go to pieces and the Cruella persona gets into the driver’s seat.
What follows is a montage of Cruella upstaging and overshadowing The Baroness at every turn.
Employing guerrilla fashion tactics, Cruella and her gang turn events on their head, announce Cruella’s arrival on the fashion scene and attempt to leave The Baroness in the dust. The eventual showdown between these two genius characters is the denouement of the film and watching the two Emmas act their asses off is truly delicious.
It’s a real testament to Emma Stone’s performance in Cruella that she’s able to stand toe-to-toe with Emma Thompson and hold her own. Both roles are larger than life and somewhat cartoonishly exaggerated however they’re grounded in such realism and believability that they feel like they could be real people. Not to mention that the performances are pitch-perfect.
However, the subject matter, time period, setting, soundtrack and performances make Cruella a film that’s not suitable for children. Parents may be tempted to take their kids along to see it or to order it on Disney+ but that would be a mistake, Cruella is too dark and too scary for the little ones. Even teens may struggle with some of the subject matter.
That being said, it’s a very worthwhile experience, albeit a dark one.
Recontextualising Cruella de Vil is a tall order and in spite of how good Cruella is, I’m not sure if the film entirely succeeds. Knowing the character from 101 Dalmations — both animated and live-action — it’s difficult to put all that history aside. You’ll never stop worrying about the dogs in this film nor will you really be able to see Cruella as an out and out protagonist. She’s more an anti-hero anyway but whether Cruella can get you to put aside what you already know about her is up for debate.
Regardless of how successful Cruella is in recontextualising the character, it’s just overall a success. The clothes, the fashion and the performances are stellar but special mention has to go to the soundtrack. Queen, Blondie and an electrifying performance of Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog, make Cruella’s soundtrack absolutely killer.
Finally, for a Disney film, Cruella is quite forward-thinking. The central message is of being true to one’s self and the film features a prominent openly gay character. It’s a breath of fresh air from a company that so often shies away from anything “political.”
Overall, Cruella is a genuinely great film. Part drama, part heist movie and all-around character study, it’s another success for Disney’s live-action re-imaginings.