TL;DR – the origin story of Cruella de Vil shows the apple never falls far from the tree.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Disney’s track record of doing real life adaptions of their classic animated films has been a sad endeavour in milking the cash cow for all its worth. On the rare occasion, they’ve achieved some semblance of distinction that separates the adaption from the animated classic. Kenneth Branaugh’s Cinderella, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book come to mind. But other real life versions such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, and Mulan were pale (and at times dreadful) imitations of their animated counterparts. There’s a reason why they’re considered classics in animated form, and I daresay that Walt Disney would be turning in his grave (or his cryogenic chamber) if he knew this was happening.
Disney achieved some level of success (and originality) by doing a real life adaption of an animated classic but telling the story from the view of the main antagonist. Maleficent (real life adaption of Sleeping Beauty) demonstrated the potential of this approach with Angelina Jolie as the title character. The movie achieved enough success that a sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was made. Both films I enjoyed.
Cruella is meant to be a real life adaption of the animated film 101 Dalmations but told from the main antagonist, and while the focus is on Cruella rather than the dogs, the story is not at all like the animated version. In fact, Disney already did a real life adaption of 101 Dalmations using the same title, released in 1996 and starring Glenn Close as Cruella.
This 2021 release does not repeat the 1996 version and swap Glenn Close with Emma Stone. Cruella is an origin story and far better off doing so as a result.
The story begins with Estella Miller (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a precocious child with black and white hair, a penchant for fashion and a loving mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham). They move to London where Catherine attends a party of a wealthy woman simply known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson) and there Catherine seeks financial assistance. Things take a turn for the worse when Estella witnesses her mother attacked by the Baroness’s Dalmatians, who push her off a balcony overhanging a cliff into the sea. Estella believes it is her fault that her mother dies as she was told to stay in the car but instead snuck into the party and causing a ruckus that resulted her being chased by the Dalmatians.
Fast forward a decade and an adult Estella (Emma Stone) is making ends meet as a thief on the streets of London. She tries to turn her life around by working in fashion and eventually gets hired by the Baroness who turns out to be a haute couture fashion designer and considered the best in London. Under the Baroness’s employ, Estella discovers that it was actually the Baroness who was responsible for Catherine’s death. And thus Estella’s alter ego, Cruella is born.
Emma Stone is in fine form and provides layers for what was depicted as a one-dimensional character in the animated version. The switching between Estella and Cruella is fascinating to see and Stone embraces the role. One moment, she’s Estella, employee to the Baroness, plotting her revenge, giving strained smiles and hiding her anger. The next she is Cruella, fashion designer rival upstaging the Baroness and wanting to destroy the woman responsible for her mother’s death.
The movie, however, would be nothing without the other Emma. For Emma Thompson is nothing short of brilliant as the Baroness, a tyrannical figure, who takes narcissism to unheard of heights. Every word out of her mouth drips with venom. Her viper-like rebukes at her workers, her inability to give praise even to her most loyal subjects, and her uncompromising focus to be the dictator and ruler of the fashion design industry is both savage and funny.
It is Cruella versus Baroness, Emma versus Emma and lifts the film beyond the mundane and mediocre. Their desire to outwit each other, to outdo each other on the fashion stage is a delight to see, and when the reveal of the story finally unveils, it is not so much a twist as a small smile acknowledging that it all makes sense.
The only drawback is perhaps the film runs a little too long, but this is a small quip when you get to witness two actresses unleashing the peak of their powers on screen. A Disney delight.
9 out of 10