MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Crime Comedy-Drama/Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, Jon McCrea, Kayvan Novak, Jamie Demetriou, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland/Runtime: 134 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by saying that for quite a while now, film titan Disney has done an absolutely amazing job at conjuring up some of the most frightening yet riveting villains that our childhoods ever knew. As such when the iconic House of Mouse made the creative decision to give us an in-depth look at the iconic villainess Maleficent in a slice of cinematic pie from 2014 starring Angelina Jolie, it gave audiences a riveting new perspective for a film that they never knew they needed. As a result, we are now getting our 2nd foray into the world of Disney villainy with film helmer Craig Gillespie’s prequel movie on iconic fashion designer/Dalmatian loather to the extreme Cruella. Yet in all fairness this does present Disney with quite the intriguing dilemma because Cruella is not even close to a narrative dealing with fantasy lands, a deep nearly eternal sleep, and a princess poking her finger on a cursed spinning wheel. Thus how exactly does Disney make it possible for audiences to relate to someone who is represented before anything else by a seemingly psychopathic drive to turn harmless dogs into clothes for people to wear? To that end, the 2021 origin story of Cruella takes this challenge head-on with a sophistication that is gloriously over the top whilst also blending in both a delightful dollop of dark comedy and a decent narrative that for all intents and purposes is Disney’s fairly candid answer to the wonderful 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada. Suffice it to say then that it really is a fun time to be had and you honestly won’t be upset that you got a chance to step foot in this world given that this slice of cinematic pie is a particularly delightfully quirky entry in Disney’s recent crop of live action adaptations. Yet for all the positives this slice of cinematic pie has going for it including a truly riveting lead performance from Emma Stone, this film is still sadly stricken with a narrative that is way too rehashed and run of the mill thus making the proceedings a little bit less better than they easily could have and darn well should have been.
The plot is as follows: An intriguing mix of both the classic story of Oliver Twist as well as the iconic one that is The Devil Wears Prada, the slice of cinematic pie that is Cruella is one that starts right when our main heroine (?) is brought into this world and from there takes us on a rocky and quite emotional journey through Cruella real name Estella’s childhood which is marked by horrific bullying from the other children due to things I shan’t spoil here, a tragedy of a quite personal nature that hits extremely close to home that I also won’t spoil here, and is which is ultimately saved to some degree thanks to the timely decency and kind heartedness of a pair of pickpocketing siblings by the names of Jasper and Horace Badun respectfully. A pair that at this point in Cruella’s story are not quite the doltish henchmen that we know and love to hate/see their comeuppance delivered to them by a giant pack of Dalmatian puppies. Rather, they are more like surrogate brothers to our heroine and try to be there for and support her as best as they can. This of course includes helping her get a job at an upscale store in town and also lovingly pushing her to try and go after her lifelong pursuit of being a fashion designer. Yet although she begins her time there as a cleaning lady, it isn’t long before our intrepid heroine is able to nab the attention of a woman who works there by the name of the Baroness von Hellman, a woman who among other noteworthy things that could be said about her is, for the sake of our narrative, the top dog (pun intended) of the world of fashion in the city of London. Along with that however, I guess it won’t come as any real shock for you dear reader to learn that The Baroness is also a woman who is equal parts fabulous in every way yet also completely and utterly rotted away right down to her very core. In fact I’ll take it a step further and say that the Baroness is a 110% wicked, mean, and vindictive sort who takes great pride and pleasure in taking credit for other people’s creative endeavors by any means necessary. Yet whilst this is something she has gotten away for quite a while, it is still that last thing that I mentioned which is perhaps the most important for the sake of our story. That’s because it is that item which will see our intrepid heroine (?) go down a particular rabbit hole and reemerge as an fashion anarchist now going by the name of Cruella de Vil who has one goal and one goal only in life and that is to make the Baroness second best as many times as she possibly can and thus the game, as a wise man once said, is truly afoot. As to where the game goes and how it ends I dare not tell you. Rather, I think it best if you find out for yourself dear reader. Trust me: you’ll thank me later….
Now right off the bat I feel it needs to be said that Emma Stone is, to no one’s surprise I hope, in top form in this slice of cinematic pie. Indeed her take on the iconic woman that is Cruella DeVil manages to gift audiences with just the right mix of despicable and kindhearted that the moviegoer requires in order to make their way through this narrative without at the same time coercing them into rooting for someone who is a legit coldhearted antagonist. A feat the movie manages to pull off courtesy of not only initially calling herself Estella, but also by introducing her first and foremost as an assertive and stubborn orphan with quite the heart and skill for the world of fashion. Yet as soon as our intrepid heroine (?) gets an opportunity to go up against the movie’s antagonist in the form of the Baroness, this slice of cinematic pie gets a riveting jolt of adrenaline and transforms into a riveting chess match between a pair of incredible performers in Emma Stone and Emma Thompson respectively. In regards to the former, I think it should be said that Stone has always possessed quite the enchanting way of getting an audience to really root for her and her time in this film in the titular role. Indeed she manages to make this movie work phenomenally well from beginning to end even during the moments where it seems like it’s just an old timey fashion catalogue come to life. I mean a lot of other actresses out there might have given a performance that was extremely too over the top, but when Emma Stone puts on that infamous black and white wig she gives one incredible performance. Yes the character is also provided a loosey goosey backstory that is pushed in so it can help the character out in some absurd ways, but man does Stone still make this work to the point that a biting monologue delivered by her near the end of the film is transformed from something that could have been run of the mill into a riveting moment that can easily be placed side by side her work in such films as La La Land or even Birdman for that matter.
Yet for as great as Stone is, her supporting cast is just as terrific and mesmerizing in equal measure. This starts with the woman who is arguably the movie’s 2nd main character in the form of the Baroness played with delicious wickedness by iconic actress Emma Thompson. Indeed it may seem like she is simply playing the British equivalent of Meryl Streep’s boss from hell that we got in Devil Wears Prada, but there are a few secrets up the Baroness’ sleeves that make her a slightly more intriguing foil than Meryl. As such, this is a character that the phrase “love to loathe” was literally all about when it came into existence and Thompson plays the part absolutely wonderfully in the worst ways possible. I also appreciated the mark made on this film by top-notch acting talent Mark Strong as Baroness’ mysterious valet John. No it’s not the biggest part in the world, but Strong is a talented enough actor to make it work wonderfully. Out of everyone in the supporting cast though, the 2 that I absolutely loved the most would have to be Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as Jasper and Horace respectively. I mean not only do the 2 actually do a great job at giving us fresh interpretations of 2 of the most delightfully bumbling sidekicks in Disney animated film history, but they also give the film quite a few laughs and a surprisingly fair degree of heart as well. Yes Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are absolutely magnetic in this film, but I do feel it would also not work nearly as well if Fry and Hauser weren’t in this. Indeed they are that wonderful.
Now for quite a few of the more wonderful performances in cinematic history, they were usually shepherded in the films they made their mark in by an equally as iconic director at the helm and in that respect this film made a marvelous decision by bringing onboard Craig Gillespie to helm this movie. Indeed the helmer behind such distinct yet enjoyable slices of cinematic pie as I, Tonya really does a wonderful job of conjuring up his distinct style to this movie from every possible avenue. Avenues incidentally which include a phenomenal soundtrack of 70s hits throughout this film’s 2 hr and 14 minute runtime as well as some delightful rowdiness to a movie with a distinct vision that is able to show itself even though the script and story are nowhere near on the level of the performances or the work done behind the camera. Make no mistake though dear reader: this is quite the ambitious film in that it is a origin tale that is able to find a way to reside in the official canon whilst also functioning as both a heist film from the 70s as well as a delightful showcase of incredible works of fashion. Speaking of the latter I think it can be said that the adoration for clothes in this is literally a 3rd main character sandwiched between the Baroness and Estella/Cruella and it’s a main character whose presence is delivered to audiences in a wonderful manner even if things do seem to go on a bit too long due to this film’s 2 hr, 14 minute runtime.
All in all though I think it can be safely said that the titular character’s fondness for all things stylish and/or glamorous is very much respected and the whole cast at the heart of this slice of cinematic pie manages to operate and function within this film’s setting phenomenally well. Indeed for an origin saga about one of the most infamous Disney villainesses of all time, as sure as it was to ruffle a feather or 5 along the way, Disney and co still make it work in a way that is grand, surprising, and entirely engaging all rolled into one. No it is not the most agreeable in the world to say nothing of how no holds barred and downright assertive in what it is and what kind of movie it is striving to be. With that being said though, there is something lacking about this film too. A void that takes the form of asking if after viewing the movies 101 or 102 Dalmatians was there anyone who ever truly took the time to really ponder what made Cruella the woman that she was to begin with? I mean to this reviewer it really feels like the concept of making a film about Cruella just sounded awesome around the mouse ear-shaped watercooler and thus Disney set out to make one. Having aired that particular grievance though, this movie gives audiences exactly what it wanted to. Indeed it is a fashionable film where the antagonist you thought you knew is shown in a completely different light….whilst seriously lacking any kind of message or answering the proverbial question of “Why”. In many respects therefore, Cruella feels like the Disney Animation equivalent to Star Wars giving us a Han Solo origin film. Thankfully, not only is this leaps and bounds better than that film was, but it is also is quite magical too. No it might not be a perfect film by any stretch, but sometimes perfection is not nearly as delightful as fashionable and it is in regards to the latter that this film is a fairly successful effort. On a scale of 1-5 I give Cruella “2021” a solid 3.5 out of 5.