2021 | rated PG-13 | starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong | directed by Craig Gillespie | 2 hrs 14 mins |
Way back in 1996, Disney released a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians with a John Hughes script and an acclaimed performance by Glenn Close as arch villain Cruella De Vil. It was apparently a movie way ahead of it’s time, predating the Cinderella live-action remake boom Disney is currently hitting us with right now. Cruella, like Maleficent, carves a new path into the material by giving us unnecessary tragic backstories for their once iconic characters instead of the good vs evil fare of uncomplicated children’s films – which is not an insult to those films, that’s how they are supposed to be. Once you get past all the fluff through, Cruella has a uniquely independent and daring streak that I’m shocked that the mouse house let out of the cage.
Cruella De Vil was once a young mischievous girl named Estella, who was taught by her loving mom to control her more cruel impulses by shutting them away in another persona, Cruella. When mom falls on hard financial times and dies in a terrible accident, Estella falls in with a group of London petty thieves growing to perfect the art of the con until she tries to go straight with a legit job at a Liberty London clothing store run by iconic fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson). Her passion for fashion finds her turning into The Baronesses reluctant protégé but soon the two clash and Cruella must come out of Estella once again.
Few movies lately have had a turn around for me quite like the 180 degree whiplash I got from Cruella. It is a tale of two movies, a grating first half that evolves into a terrific second half. There were parts of the first half where I almost bailed on it entirely and was totally riveted to the style and way it all comes together in the 2nd half. When it is good, Cruella is the best live-action Disney adaptation they have do so far – a movie with a vision and an imagination that pries itself out from under cutesy studio mandates to do this and that. Have a comic relief sidekick, have a cute dog, throw a twist in there, fold it back to 101 Dalmatians have our fashion villainess emulate Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. The movie does all of that, but in it’s own style. Cruella seems like the result of a lesson learned from the Marvel films, where Marvel occasionally turns the reigns of a project over to an indie filmmaker with a vision to make their version of the movie and the results are as successful as Iron Man 3, Thor: Ragnarok or Avengers: Infinity War. At the helm here is Craig Gillespie, a filmmaker who has his share of studio films like The Finest Hours or the Fright Night remake, along with indie projects like Lars and the Real Girl, culminating in 2017 acerbic, terrific, Tonya Harding bio-pic I, Tonya.
A pet peeve of mine is movies that use obvious, on-the-nose, musical cues played almost in their entirety to generate good will for the film from the popularity of the song. Zack Snyder is the biggest offender of this from Watchman to Army of the Dead and that is what the first half of this movie is constructed out of. One scene after another punctuated by a recognizable hit of it’s 70s time period played in it’s entirety. The Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow, the perennial 70s movie signpost, The Zombies, Time of the Season, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good and anything dog related like John McCrea’s I Wanna Be Your Dog (the only one that actually works because the scene makes it work – the turning point in the film). Once the movie gets out of this mode, more noticeably in the 2nd act, Nicholas Britell’s original score is terrific and really pumps up the mood. A synth rock mix with a 70s vibe. It’s one of the best scores of the year.
Even in the film’s cartoonish first half it’s Emma Stone (sporting a British accent, Cruella’s 2-toned hair and a producer credit)’s terrific performance that keeps the movie afloat. Once the film wrestles itself out from under it’s assembly-line artificially constructed feel (and again, we stay there a long time), it really shines and so does Stone. Taking on the film’s contention that Estella is having a genuine psychotic break to become Cruella, Stone make sly changes to the performance that tant amount to playing duel roles.
The film comes together just beautifully in the 3rd act with turns that aren’t for the sake of surprise, but fill in Cruella’s backstory in a meaningful, plot-pushing way. If it’s PG-13 rating and over 2 hour length wasn’t enough to indicate this isn’t for the younger kids, a scene that suggests Cruella has murdered the Baronesses dogs and has a serious disorder that her friends don’t even recognize her in, should do the job. It gets darker, deeper and turns into a well orchestrated revenge/heist story with a deeply satisfying finale. Everything fires on all cylinders, the story, but also the themes, visuals and story all prove worth the set-up.
A Cruella origin story didn’t have to be set in the 70s. It could have been set at any time. It’s to Gillespie and the film’s unique vision that fuses the villainesses with a punk rock beatnik fashion era and gives it a unique indie voice. As much as I didn’t like the first half, I loved the last half and this movie got richer and better the more it turned over in my head. Stick it out – this time, it’s worth it. Even at half a movie, it is still the best Disney live action adaptation to date.