Like a lot of people, we went into Cruella wondering why the film needed to exist in the first place – aside from the obvious reason, which is to make Disney money. We would have thought the “turn a former villain into an anti-hero” thing was a bit played out at this point and when it comes to Cruella De Vil, the iconic puppy-killer from 101 Dalmations, we couldn’t see any possible route to making the character relatable or her actions explainable. Worse, the trailers and promotional artwork for the film seemed designed to underline and highlight how stale the whole venture felt; like a Disneyfied mashup of Harley Quinn and The Devil Wears Prada. Well, we’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that all of our pre-screening reservations were more or less completely founded. There is no good reason for this film to exist, there is no real way to turn a puppy-killer into a heroine, and it really is pretty much a Harley Wears Prada melange.
Now for the good news: Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are both hilarious and Cruella manages to overcome its inherent flaws with tremendous style and just enough of a flirtation with tearing down the Disney machinery to make it feel edgier than it actually is. Director Craig Gillespie brings some of that cynical sharpness that characterized his last film I, Tonya and filters it (sometimes heavily) through a Disney lens of cute respectability. Sometimes that tension between Gillespie’s sarcastic modernity and the easily palatable Disney formula produces surprisingly stylish moments. The film has easily the best Disney soundtrack in decades and the costumes by Jenny Beavan are both Oscar-worthy and haute couture runway-worthy.
The central conflict is darker than the usual Disney fare and some of the actions of the two leads go a bit beyond cursing babies or poisoning apples (although no animals are harmed, in case you were wondering). The dialogue is as sharp as any scene from The Devil Wears Prada (to which it should rightly be compared in every review, if only for the fact that the film did very little to hide its inspirations). Stone and Thompson have delicious chemistry together and if they didn’t personally enjoy the hell out of working with each other, they both did a damn good job of making it look like they did. There is not one scene in which at least one of them isn’t a pure joy to watch. And while this may seem a small thing to some (and to be fair, it kinda is, given how minimal the effort was), this is the first mainstream Disney film to feature a clearly queer-coded character (played by gay actor John McCrea) whose flamboyant nature is praised by other characters even as he acknowledges that it comes with a price in a homophobic world. To be fair, all of this is extremely subtly (one might say “gingerly” or even “over-cautiously”) handled in comparison to how most mainstream entertainment deals with gay characters, but it’s definitely a bolder take than one would ever expect from Disney.
Still, despite the anarchy movement aesthetic, the killer soundtrack, the unexpected queerness, and the Vivienne Westwood-inspired haute punk costume design it is still very much a Disney product. The film’s late seventies London looks roughly as realistic as Mary Poppins’ Edwardian version of it and it is populated by dogs with digital faces. We’re just saying. It’s subtle and it’s not over-used, but every time one of the dog characters emotes just a little too smoothly and with perfect timing, one of us piped up “There it is. There’s the Disney.” For all the lead character’s talk of how evil and bad she is, her antics rarely rise above the level of slightly mean bullying. We can’t help returning to the moment when punk street kid and professional thief Estella (Stone, before the film goes to tremendous lengths to explain not only Cruella De Vil’s first name, but also her last one) is found passed out in a high-end department store window, wakes up to the realization she’s about to be fired, and blurts out the F word. “Fart.” Like its flirtation with the punk aesthetic, and its insistence that the lead character is a much more hardened figure than she actually is, Cruella gestures toward the idea that its anti-hero is hardcore and evil, but makes sure to prevent her from ever committing to it. Almost all of her so-called “evil” actions are given time to be explained and the film will do so, in exhausting detail, because it’s at least thirty minutes longer than it needs to be.
But damn, Stone is good. Damn, Thompson is better. Damn, those costumes are the best we’ve seen in years. Damn, that’s a fun soundtrack. Sure, it’s a Disney movie with all the markers that implies (digital dog faces), but it’s a story about two women who fight each other not for love, not to see who is the most beautiful, and not (at first, at least) for vengeance. Their fight is entirely based on their talent and their professional standing and the film is very clear on this idea. Thompson’s Baroness, a legendary high fashion designer being challenged by punk upstart Cruella even notes that she thinks her adversary is an amazing talent. “But she’s decided it’s either her or me,” Thompson says with a voice like honey-covered ice, “And I choose me.” It’s moments like that – and there are a lot of them – that make Cruella worth your time. While it may be a film that spends a little too much time and energy doing so, Cruella justifies itself over and over again, with wit, high style, and two amazing actresses at the center of it, having the time of their lives.