I’ve made it no secret that I haven’t been a fan of many of Disney’s recent live action remakes but I’ve found that it’s when Disney does something completely or mostly new with their classic properties that I tend to appreciate the trend. Movies like “Maleficent”, “Dumbo”, and “Christopher Robin” have entertained me more than the straight up remakes because at least they tried to do something different with the properties they were based on. This is why I was a bit excited for Disney’s latest villain origin story “Cruella” exploring the rise of the legendary Cruella de Vil. Emma Stone stars as the titular villainess of “101 Dalmatians” in a crime comedy that sees Cruella, born Estella, rise to the top as a fashion icon in an attempt to topple the even more vile Baroness von Hellman, played by Emma Thompson. There was plenty of potential for this movie to be just another bad Disney live-action romp, but like several predecessors it’s “Cruella’s” unique spin on the titular character and its ability to embrace its own personality that makes it stand out in its own special way.
I genuinely enjoyed watching this flick. The fact that it serves as a more unique examination of Cruella as a character rather than as another adaptation of “101 Dalmatians”, which became one of the first Disney movies with a live action remake back in the early 90s, allowed it to be its own thing with shades of its source material spattered in for some fanfare. This also serves as one of its biggest weakness, but more on that later. This movie feels more focused on being a character study of an innately bad person and what makes her tick. “Cruella” is much like “Maleficent” in that it takes one of Disney’s most famous villainesses and attempts to give us an origin story that shines a new, more flattering light on the character. However, whereas “Maleficent” transformed the “Sleeping Beauty” antagonist into a misunderstood antihero who wasn’t inherently evil, “Cruella” owns the devious nature of its villain constantly reminding us that she’s definitely bad and proud of it and certainly not a role model, but there are elements of her life and upbringing that put her on that path. Cruella gets her own very personal narrative as an aspiring fashion designer turned thief turned 1970s cultural icon and we watch as her quest for power and revenge transform her from a generic rebel into a take-no-prisoners power hungry player on the London fashion scene.
The story revolves around Cruella’s rivalry with her idol-turned-rival Baroness von Hellman and absolutely lives off of the charismatic performances of two of the greatest Emma’s of cinema, Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. Seeing these two Oscar-winning titans play off each other is fantastic and keeps the energy driving as each actress feels like they’re trying to one-up each other time and time again, adding a palpable sense of competition between them that makes their on-screen rivalry all the more fun. Stone brings Cruella to life excellently complete with mannerisms, accent and attitude while Thompson commands the screen as a delightful foil-like antagonist meant to not only draw our attention to Cruella’s own decent into deviousness but also serve as someone we can compare Cruella to as she becomes the monster she is fighting against. Their relationship acts as a fun allegory for how absolute power and vengeance can corrupt even if you feel your acts are justified against someone more evil than yourself. Perfect casting and an energetic script and screenplay keep “Cruella” from ever feeling boring or drawn out as it captures the charm of numerous different genres and story archetypes that give it that uniquely dark personality contrary to Disney’s usual overly cheerful flare. It’s still funny and family friendly, but has it’s own dark charm to it we really don’t see a lot of in the studio’s usual offerings. Director Craig Gillespie (of “I, Tonya” fame) and writers Dana Fox and Tony McNamara do a fine job making Cruella into a character we feel bad liking and rooting for but we root for nonetheless.
Visually “Cruella” fully embraces its dark edge in its production design, settings and style. The fashion plays a big part in the story as well with the costumes often acting as minor characters on their own likely putting this film on the short list for the 2022 Oscars for Best Costume Design. There are all kinds of visuals from the makeup to the backdrops and choices of color pallets that draw us in to “Cruella’s” world and her dark turn into the woman we all love to hate. What’s even cooler is that the colors become darker and more dampened as the titular character dives deeper into her madness. Combine this with the mesmerizing rivalry of its leads and the fun energy of the screenplay and “Cruella” is a great package of visual flair and entertainment. However, it’s worth noting that “Cruella” is far from perfect. It does still feel a bit held back by Disney’s need to have a family friendly appeal where the Cruella character could have gone even farther with her villainy. I also can’t necessarily say the movie does enough to justify its own existence. Even walking out of the movie having enjoyed it, I still have that lasting feeling of “did we really NEED a Cruella de Vil film”? While the callbacks to the “101 Dalmatians” films are relatively small they do feel forced at times and even create some issues with continuity to either the animated originals or the 90s live-action films so unless Disney plans to make it the first franchise they remake in live action twice those hoping to see this film as an origin story to either of the previous incarnations of the iconic baddy might be a bit underwhelmed. Ultimately “Cruella” provides some genuine laughs, suspense and fun holding well as its own standalone experience while reminding us in many ways why Cruella is such a interesting villain. It just feels clearly held back by the normal Disney-imposed limitations and a subtle but ever present lack of overall purpose. I can appreciate that we have a Cruella origin story, especially one so entertaining, but I’m still not convinced we needed it.
Fueled by a pair of fun performances by Emma Stone and Emma Thompson and layered with some fun dark humor and atmosphere, “Cruella” might not be a movie we necessarily needed but it’s one I’m glad we have that adds more layers to one of the most devious and vile Disney baddies. I would even call it a step in the right direction for Disney’s villain origin subgenre as it feels unafraid to make us hate and love Cruella at the same time. Its fashion flair and the fact that it does, in fact, qualify as a Disney remake cash grab might turn some people off and I do feel like Cruella deserved a movie that went a bit farther in showcasing just how deep her villainy goes, but in my opinion even when it’s limited by the Disney standards this is one of the most fun and engaging live action offerings the studio has provided in years. For me as a viewer it also proves that there actually is some potential in Disney’s live action formula when the right minds and performers come together to make it their own.