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‘Cruella’ goes to the dogs – in a good way

June 1, 2021
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Everything old is new again.

That’s the attitude we’ve been seeing from the folks at Disney over the past few years. Leaving aside the omnipresent churn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve also been witness to the company’s ever-increasing tendency to find ways to revisit and recycle pieces from the vast store of intellectual property they’ve amassed over the decades.

For instance, the trend of crafting live-action(ish) remakes of beloved animated classics. From “Cinderella” to “Beauty and the Beast” to “Aladdin” to “The Lion King,” the back half of the 2010s was littered with these remakes. Some were good, some were … less good. But they all made truckloads of money at the box office, and so the hits keep on coming.

An outgrowth of that trend saw movies like “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Maleficent” and its kind-of-terrible sequel. Those films weren’t remakes per se, but rather attempts at reimagining and retconning a classic Disney character. Again, not necessarily creative triumphs, but largely commercial ones.

It’s that outgrowth that has given us “Cruella,” Disney’s gritty prequel treatment of Cruella de Vil that is currently available both in theaters and at home via Disney+ Premium Access. With an absolutely stacked cast led by Emma Stone as the titular Cruella, it’s an effort to backfill the story of a character who is, quite frankly, one of the most cartoonishly evil in the Disney rogues’ gallery of cartoon evil.

And it’s … kind of good? Almost unexpectedly so?

It’s a super-stylish period piece that attempts to show us how Cruella became the unrepentant force of sinisterness that we see in “101 Dalmatians,” painting the titular character as a wounded young person who grew up seeking to find avenues to express her fashion passions and the door-kicking proto-punk rock path she took to finally get there … as well as revenge on those who wronged her along the way. It features a great aesthetic and some great performances; while the screenplay definitely has its issues, the overall effort is largely a successful one.

Young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, “Emily and the Magical Journey”) never quite fits in. She’s got a sharp wit and a creative mind, but is also possessed of a bit of a cruel streak – so much so that her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham, “Outside the Wire”) gives her the nickname “Cruella.” Estella’s hot temper gets her booted from boarding school, so Catherine decides to take her to London.

The two stop at a palatial mountainside estate so that Catherine can run an unspecified errand. Despite being told to stay put, Estella and her dog wind up crashing the lavish party inside, causing chaos that leads to an unexpected and tragic end for her mother. Devastated and terrified, she flees the scene, making her way to London where she winds up meeting a couple of young hustlers who decide that she can be part of their gang.

Flash forward a decade and Estella (Emma Stone) has grown into quite an accomplished criminal. She’s grown up alongside those boys who took her in years ago; Jasper (Joel Fry, “Love Wedding Repeat”) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, “Da 5 Bloods”) have become her literal partners-in-crime, with the trio making their living through grifting and assorted petty thefts.

But one day, for her birthday, Jasper and Horace get Estella a present – they’ve gotten her a job at a prominent high-end department store, a place that could serve as the jumping-off point for her to finally realize her fashion designer dreams. A few perhaps-too-fortuitous turns later, Estella is discovered by the Baroness (Emma Thompson, “Dolittle”), London’s preeminent fashion designer.

Yet just when it seems like her dreams are on the verge of coming true, it all starts to crumble as Estella makes a series of discoveries that lead her to rediscover a long-dormant part of herself and unleash it on an unsuspecting London fashion scene. Cruella is back, and her return will capture the attention of an entire city – for better or worse – as she sets into motion her elaborate plans for victory and vengeance.

“Cruella” surprised me. Now, of course I knew that the performances would be good – I mean, this is a stacked cast even beyond the two absolute A-listers at the top of the call sheet – but I wondered what they could do with this character. Anyone who has watched “101 Dalmatians” knows Cruella as an unrepentant villain, one of the most purely evil characters Disney ever animated. How do you humanize a character like that?

And yet … it works. Not perfectly, mind you – there’s a whole lot of retconning necessary for us to buy any of what’s happening (a reality the film implicitly acknowledges in multiple spots, most prominently in a mid-credits stinger that I won’t spoil here) – but it works, so long as you recognize the disconnect. It’s dark but not too dark, with outlets for humor and action that keep things from going too far into the shadows.

The one-two punch of a ‘60s-‘70s setting and fashion world backdrop means that director Craig Gillespie and company have a lot of room for visual fun. It’s an opportunity that all involved embrace, with a number of absolutely stunning screen pictures scattered throughout the film. And while there’s certainly some edge here, the truth is that the film is a bit more of a romp than I expected – there are some real laughs here, as well as some surprisingly robust action, mixed in with the lush visuals of lavish galas and the like.

(Note: If you’re like me, you had one particular concern regarding a “gritty” take on this particular character, so allow me to put your mind at ease: while there are plenty of dogs (including dalmatians) in this movie, none of them are harmed. Felt important to get that out there – dogs are prominent, but nothing terrible happens to any of them.)

Obviously, the cast is aces. Stone is a marvelous pick for this role, with the combination of comedic ability and dramatic chops – not to mention a willingness to go for it – that suits the part beautifully, all while clearly having a blast. Emma Thompson is also having a hell of a time, giving the Baroness a delightful edge of self-obsessed entitlement. The two Emmas together are, as you might imagine, exquisite – the oft-cited description of this film as “Joker” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” doesn’t work in the micro sense, but is apt in the macro, if that makes sense. Fry and Hauser are in many ways the heart and soul of the film, with their combination of bumbling awkwardness and surprising competence contributing mightily to the much-needed humor. We get some highlight performances from folks like Mark Strong and John McCrea as well.

“Cruella” is a much better film than it needed to be – it would almost certainly have been a commercial win even if everyone had phoned it in. Instead, the talents of the cast and the wonderful production design overcome the oddity of the retcon and the too-many-cooks flavor of the script. It’s a weird flex from Disney, endowing such a clear-cut character with a complex backstory, but in the end, it proves to be a successful one.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2021 06:03

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