There was Maleficent, then Suicide Squad, then Venom, then Joker, now Cruella! Apologies if I missed any, but I have to say villain stories are now trending, and Cruella is a terrific example of why we should be excited for that. When we’re kids, we understand our heroes. When we’re adults, we also understand our villains, and movie studios are finally listening to the ones who have to be vanquished and how maybe they weren’t entirely in the wrong, or used to not be.
As someone unfamiliar with the original movies where Cruella de Vil was introduced as well as Cruella herself, I was excited to see what sort of world she lives in. Well, her real name is Estella Miller and she grew up with that exact same half-black-and-white hairdo. Her mother always tried to get her to keep calm against a temper she had but when the bullies came knocking she always hit back, no doubt always being the one with a stamp on her permanent record. When she gets expelled (or withdrawn from the school at the last second by her mother so that won’t be brought up) they head up to London to try a new life. When they go to some sort of mansion called Hellman Hall, Estella accidentally causes havoc that leads to her being chased by rather violent dalmation dogs. And her mother dies in the middle of the anarchy.
Blaming herself and feeling forever lost, she ends up meeting two other orphaned kids by a city fountain, Horace and Jasper. They’re petty thieves on the street with a hideout and well-trained dog companions. Deciding to take her in, the three of them spend the next ten years pulling heists to keep their bellies full, and they are all clearly having a lot of fun. But Estella wants to do more with her life. Maybe she feels her mother would not be pleased with how she turned out to be. Since she was little, Estella’s had an interest in fashion designing, despite the fact it was a ball filled with the sort of dresses and tuxes designers make where her mother died. Anyway, Horace (a hilarious Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (a handsome Joel Fry) manage to make a bogus portfolio and sneak it onto a list of “Accepted” ones. Where she goes from here and how she meets the Baroness (the always preeminent Emma Thompson), a British Miranda Priestly, I guess you’ll have to see.
Emma Stone has been amazing in everything she’s in, but I think this is definitely her most unusual role and her biggest challenge. 20 years ago, people were angry Renee Zellweger, an American, got the part of Bridget Jones. The casting directors made a gamble choosing Stone, but it paid off. Just look at her eyes in that poster. Stone channels a sad but tenacious young lady when Estella, and her transformation over the movie into the antagonist whose name is as recognizable as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, is both thanks to Stone’s performance and the flow of the movie.
Taking place in the 60s and 70s with a surprisingly recognizable and upbeat soundtrack you just wouldn’t expect from a studio known for inventing their own beats to tap your feet to, the movie’s sets and costumes rule, but there’s a dress Cruella makes out of garbage (really) that ends up being a very surprising bottom length, and a backup plan when a heist goes wrong involves letting a bunch of rats loose. Those scenes are just some of many spectacularly iffy mischief our anti-heroes do. It reminded me of the beloved Sly Cooper gang and it made me fall in love with people I think I’d want caught if they swiped anything off of me. But they haven’t, so they’re ripe for my sympathy.
Something I was really surprised to call this movie was “unpredictable”. This movie caught me off guard more times than Cruella herself did the same to the Baroness. The movie is very sneaky in what’s going to actually happen, even if there’s a sense the crew are going to have to improvise. About four huge twists take place when we think we’re focused enough on how much of a monster Thompson’s character is and how Stone is unintentionally turning into her. This is a very layered movie generous with the heists, authority escapes, rule breaking, overpowering, irresistible pettiness, and tales of the dog-eat-dog world of fashion and the war for where eyes should be set.
There’s one thing that feels out of place, nearing the beginning of the third act. Cruella ends up talking to herself about how bad she is, then very shortly after tries to make things right with her friends. It felt like there was a scene in between that got left out. I’m still happy with what direction was in the end taken, because at that point, either Cruella was going to make things right and then wreak havoc…or accept herself as a monstrosity and wreak horror.
If Disney was coming off for some as too family friendly and magnetized to schmaltz, Cruella proves they’ve got some more tricks to showcase, like a dalmation who can do back flips on a burning rooftop and break dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. After the upcoming Venom sequel, I don’t know what villain we’ll be looking more into next, but whoever it is, I hope the screenwriters do their homework and get a load of this film first.