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Another fresh take on a classic Disney villain, a la Maleficent, but this time it’s 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella who gets a cooler, kinder, and more animal-friendly edit, with a few nods to the old story—kidnapped dalmatians, robbery schemes, and psycho fashion designers—all set against 1970s London.
Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong (Kingsman: Secret Service, Shazam), Joel Fry (Yesterday), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Killing Eve, The Good Place, Barry), Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell, I,Tonya). You’re going to spend the whole movie thinking, “Where have I seen that British(ish) person before?” Now you know. Directed by Craig Gillespie (I,Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl), screenplay by Dana Fox (Isn’t it Romantic?) Tony McNamara (The Favourite), story by Aline Brosh Mckenna (The Devil Wears Prada), cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya), costume design by Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road).
It’s a dazzling, jaw-dropping, fashion-filled ride. I went in curious about how they were going to retell Cruella’s story sans puppy-murder plans, and that’s taken off the table within the first 10 minutes of the movie (in a scene you may seen making the rounds on social media). Cruella really is more of an original story than an origin story. Cruella—originally Estella—is a girl born with two-toned hair and a fighting spirit, orphaned under tragic and villainous circumstances. Bullies beware.
She finds new friends in London, pickpockets Jasper (Fry) and Horace, (Hauser), and they form a small family gang with their puppies, Buddy and Wink. She loves dogs, you guys! Estella’s dream is to become a fashion designer like her idol, The Baroness, played to the sociopathic nth degree by Emma Thompson. Her talent catches the Baroness’ eye, but the Baroness’ behavior and their shared history puts Estella—as her alias Cruella—on the path to vengeance by way of upstaging and humiliation.
The basic elements of the book and movie versions of 101 Dalmatians are rearranged to serve this tale. There are dalmatians, of course, but only three. The Darlings pop up in supporting roles. The threat of mortal danger abounds, as the movie winks at the audience with nods to the original story. In one instance, Cruella—the nickname Estella’s mother gave her when she was being particularly naughty—growls that the Baroness’ dogs would make lovely coats. Jasper, horrified at the extreme change in his friend’s personality, hopes that she’s not serious. She’s not (yet).
The movie works in large part because of the performances these A-level actors give to their traditionally B-level cartoonish roles. The story isn’t to be taken too seriously, but as the saying goes, they understand the assignment. Stone brings her by now trademark vulnerability, hurt, and cold anger to Estella/Cruella, while Thompson treads on the right side of camp as she channels a vicious version of Miranda Priestly. Emma Thompson is clearly having a great time, and why not? She looks gorgeous. Actually, they all do.
The cherry on top of the movie is that it makes the most of its period setting. Two cherries, actually—the fashion and the soundtrack—establish the film’s 60s rock and 70s punk sensibilities. Nancy Sinatra, Queen, Ike and Tina Turner. How can you not use more of them in your life? And costume designer Jenny Beavan outdoes herself with Cruella’s sweeping skirts, leather accents, and face-painted masks, along with the Baroness’ corseted gowns and Mad Men-esque skirts. It’s fantastic!
Dazzling, transporting, and inventive, Cruella is a jaw-dropping, fashion-and-punk-rock-filled ride that’s a whole lot of fun.
Rated PG-13, it’s meant for the whole family, tweens and up. The 70s backdrop and casting will appeal to the parents and grandparents, especially those who grew up watching the 101 Dalmations. I saw it in the theater with another Disney-loving, non-purist friend as our first post-lockdown movie date. It’s a perfect popcorn flick, but I’m also looking forward to seeing it on Disney+ once it’s off Premier Access on August 27th.
Stay in your seats for the end-credit scene, which brings the Darlings’ part of Cruella’s story full-circle. Or vice-versa, considering how you see it.
If you’re interested in the film, you might also like our recent Guide to the Dalmatians-verse feature.