What’s black and white and red all over? A Dalmatian thief with a diaper rash. Or a scarlet-frocked Disney de Villainess making her debut in the London tabloids.
Starring Oscar winner Emma Stone as the monochrome-coiffed fashionista with a soft spot for puppy fur, “Cruella” takes its cues from the “Wicked” playbook — or more recently, Warner Bros.’ “Joker” — to deliver a dark yet sympathetic portrait of a cult-favorite character whom audiences only thought they knew. That character, of course, is “101 Dalmatians” dognapper Cruella de Vil (previously embodied by Glenn Close for one of the studio’s first live-action adaptations), who turns out to be more fierce than cruel in a franchise offering with an identify of its own.
What “Cruella” is not — to the immense relief of many, I’m sure — is another “Maleficent.” (Although who could top the casting of Angelina Jolie as Sleeping Beauty’s misunderstood nemesis?) Whereas that live-action Disney spinoff was an obnoxious eyesore that risked tarnishing the appeal of the original, director Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” proves ingeniously creative in its reimagining of the underlying IP.
Set in 1970s London, the movie imagines Cruella as a Vivienne Westwood-esque punk clothing designer desperate to make her mark. Parading an increasingly stunning line of anti-establishment garments (only one of them “fur”), Stone seems positively delighted to vamp her way through the role, channeling her best Eva Green energy as an alabaster-skinned, cat-eyed haute couture disruptor opposite Emma Thompson’s imperious Baroness, the elegant yet egocentric designer at the top of the London fashion scene.
So often, these high-concept prequel/reboots can feel like watching someone else try to solve a punishingly tough Sudoku puzzle, as handsomely compensated screenwriters tie themselves in pretzels to reverse-engineer a plot with which audiences are already all too familiar. By contrast, “Cruella” stands on its own, to the extent that Disney could have changed the title character’s name, and the resulting movie would still have been a slyly empowering underdog story — especially for those who see themselves in the put-upon assistant position of “The Devil Wears Prada.” (In retrospect, wasn’t that movie a “Cinderella” fantasy of sorts?)
Credit goes to co-writers Dana Fox (“Kate and Ben”) and Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”), although it was the trio of Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis who cracked the way for Cruella to come across as more than just a one-joke camp icon, but an antihero to be reckoned with. As a result of their collective brainstorming, Cruella has been reimagined as the survivor of a bleak, Dickensian childhood. Even her birth name, Estella, seems like a deliberate nod to “Great Expectations.”
The poor little nonconformist (played in early scenes by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) witnesses her mother (Emily Beecham) knocked off a cliff by three very aggressive Dalmatians, which handily serves to explain her own antipathy toward the creatures. That said, what Disney fan wants to see these notoriously difficult dogs recast as aggressors? The movie’s true villain is the aforementioned Baroness, a cutthroat businesswoman who discovers Estella’s untapped talent for designing clothes during a visit to the Liberty department store and invites the until-now-unlucky young lady to come work for her.
By this point in the film, Stone has assumed the role of Estella, a two-bit grifter who’s been disguising her rather unusual “natural” hair color — stark white on the left, pitch black on the right — and trying to catch a career break. Now it’s off to the races, as Gillespie leans on vintage British rock to power through montages almost sure to inspire a generation of kids to seek employment in the fashion industry. In many ways, “Cruella” feels more Tim Burton-esque than Tim Burton’s own contribution to the Disney live-action catalog (2019’s bloated “Dumbo” redo), giving the title character a chic Gothic attitude designed to clash with the relatively snobby institution she’s determined to upset.
The movie runs a hefty 134 minutes and packs a lot of story into that space, including Estella’s parallel life as a petty criminal. She and fellow orphans Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are constantly scheming small-time heists, and though Estella dreams of more legitimate success as a clothing designer, their skills of distraction and disguise serve them well when it comes time to crash one of the Baroness’ swanky themed parties.
That’s where the “Cruella” identity is born — as an alter ego for Estella, who makes a rather spectacular entrance at the Baroness’ Black and White Ball, literally lighting the gown she’d arrived in on fire and emerging in a strictly verboten red-all-over stunner instead. From the moment she arrived on-screen until this point, Thompson has clearly stolen the show, but now it’s Stone’s to take back. The rest of the film plays like a rapidly escalating war between the two divas, and the battle gets brutal enough at times that parents of younger kids may be shocked that such a film carries the Disney imprint.
Then again, the fact that Gillespie and his team don’t play it safe, but embrace the macabre, “Series of Unfortunate Events”-like setbacks that befall these characters (including a scene in which the Baroness repays the favor of having been upstaged by attempting to burn Cruella alive) that makes this something other than formulaic kids’ fodder. The director, who brought a wicked edge to pop-culture redux “I, Tonya” a few years back, has rescued “Cruella” from the predictability of the earlier “101 Dalmatians” remakes and created a stylish new franchise of its own in which a onetime villain has been reborn as the unlikeliest of role models.