Cruella Synopsis: In 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, a young grifter named Estella (Emma Stone) is determined to make a name for herself with her designs. Estella’s flair for fashion catches the eye of the wicked Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Their relationship sets in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause Estella to embrace her wicked side and become the raucous, fashionable, and revenge-bent Cruella.
Disney’s recent barrage of live-action efforts has been middling at best. Aside from a few inspired deviations (2016’s Pete’s Dragon is still an underrated gem), most of these slapdash remakes rest far too much on the pedigree of their inspired predecessors. Soulless products like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast confused innovation with a live-action paint job, with both symbolizing sinful new heights of cynicism for the beloved House of Mouse.
Thankfully, I Tonya director Craig Gillespie elevates this tired trend with Cruella, a spin-off from the perspective of 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella De Vil. Embracing the showy chicness of its central protagonist and the 70’s punk wave, Gillespie and company spin a devilishly alluring crowdpleaser despite some foundational issues.
After two stints working with Disney (Million Dollar Arm and the refreshing traditionalist thriller The Finest Hour), Gillespie playfully lets loose within his newfound carte blanche. Cruella easily ranks as one of Disney’s most dynamic live-action efforts in some time, with Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis dreaming up a plethora of intoxicating camera movements and well-articulated frames. Every shot is constructed with purpose and intentive details, which is certainly more than I can say about most Disney live-action efforts. The lavish opulence whisks audiences along while earnestly playing tribute to the film’s high-fashion environment.
Gillespie also expresses an astute understanding of zippy techniques, implementing flashy one-take longshots and a myriad of era-defining songs to create pulsating momentum. I love how Cruella ingrains its punk-rock aesthetic in every frame. The bold stylistic choices and lively setting make a fitting accouterment to our protagonist’s rambunctious edge. I give the team involved credit for crafting outside of the typical Disney presentation sensibility, even if it’s not a wholly inventive pastiche (the Joker comparisons have been numerous).
Much of the rambunctious fun comes from the well-matched cast. Emma Stone is clearly having a ball as the quirky Cruella. Stone sinks her teeth into every scene, performing with a level of theatric grandiosity fitting of the character’s colorful image. Still, she doesn’t forget to imbue the wild-child persona with some much-needed humanity, delivering a fitting anti-hero deserving of the audience’s empathy. Emma Thompson is deliciously wicked as Cruella’s narcissistic rival, while Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry liven their archetype roles as Cruella’s sidekicks.
Cruella marks several positive steps forward for Disney’s live-action catalog, but there’s clearly still room for improvement. Gillespie’s energetic effort gets too boisterous for its own good, with the medley of song choices and stylish edits masking the lack of dimensionality under the surface. I wish the character dynamics here had more time to render. For a movie centered on the wicked villainess, Cruella’s journey from small-time thief to bold fashion icon rarely receives time to breathe onscreen (the film’s most intimate scene, a confessional by Cruella of her misdeeds, is unsurprisingly its best). It does seem that Disney is getting a little too much credit for embracing more inventive choices. In actuality, the studio should have incorporated bolder techniques a long time ago.
It may be a case of style over substance, but Cruella still shines as an engaging crowdpleaser defined by its own wicked sensibility.