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'Cruella,' the Disney villainess with a fashionable backstory

Deliciously stylish, Disney live-action adaptation starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson shies away from actual villainy

Directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”), “Cruella” is a dazzling crime-comedy, villain origin story with a vampy flair distinct from the standard Disney live-action feature. Despite an untrimmed run time of 2 hours and 14 minutes, its plot contrivances and questionable character motives are hurried swiftly along from one visually sumptuous set piece to another as a retro playlist of 60s and 70s hits plays in the background. 

From blazing costume transformations to explosive punk-rock showdowns, “Cruella” is undoubtedly entertaining to watch as it explores the past of the villain of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians. But, per the Mouse House’s requirements to remain family-friendly, the film skirts artfully away from the uncomfortable and nasty in its premise — the making of the an antiheroine evil enough to skin puppies for fur coats.

The film begins with a rebellious primary schoolgirl with a tangled past named Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland). Just like the iconic black-and-white hairdo she is born with, Estella refuses to be ordinary and does not back down when she is picked on for her daring fashion ventures. Naturally, her uncompromising boldness on conservative school grounds lands her in all sorts of trouble, eventually leaving her orphaned and alone in London. 

At the orphanage, she befriends a pair of scalawags, Jasper and Horace (mainly played by their grown-up versions, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser). Finding their homely den in an abandoned warehouse, they become a makeshift family, getting by as skilled grifters and aided by an adorable, eyepatch-sporting chihuahua, Wink. Production designer Fiona Crombie shines in her creation of a vintage 1970s London, from the rundown locks along the Thames to the chic department stores and their checkered, faculty-only hallways below. 

Half an hour into the film, an adult Estella (now played by Emma Stone) finally stumbles onto London’s West End fashion scene. Like the unformed but sharply competent Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Estella quickly ascends to the position of personal assistant and aspiring mentee of The Baroness (played by Emma Thompson), an icy megalomaniac who takes nine-minute power naps and gives comically precise lunch orders. 

When the complications of Estella’s past become untangled, her grief morphs into an overwhelming desire for revenge. This turns Estella into Cruella, her self-aggrandizing alter-ego who occasionally releases a villainous cackle or two. So begins the fashion competition between Cruella and The Baroness, with the former consistently upstaging the latter. 

Two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan captivates as the two Emmas, equally stellar Academy Award winners in their own rights, revel in a series of eclectic outfits ranging from leather ensembles inspired by emerging 70’s punk to sculptural dresses referencing the designs of Alexander McQueen and Dior. 

Drawing from London counterculture, one especially spectacular scene has Stone, clad in a Dalmatian-inspired outfit, swaggering down a fountain-top catwalk awash with neon lights, as the Ziggy Stardust-esque vintage clothing store owner, Artie (played by John McCrea), performs a powerful cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

But this visual feast of a scene may also be one of the film’s missed opportunities to deliver on its premise. Cruella never actually skins Dalmatians for her spot-patterned outerwear. She admits in a later scene to Jasper and Horace that she would never commit such a heinous act. After all, she has owned a dog of her own, a Dachshund called Buddy, since her early school years. 

On a frustratingly predictable note (just look at the 2014 “Maleficent”), “Cruella” may have too much sympathy for its titular character. The audience never sees her as someone who would eventually worship furs, leer at puppies and chortle at the comforts of a modest household. 

It comes close but, at the critical moment when Cruella ought to shock and repel the audience for her villainy, the film flinches away and shows her apologizing to her friends for her selfishness and theatrics. 

“Cruella” may be a genuinely fun watch, memorable for its audacious sets and breathtaking costumes. But the revisionist adaptation remains a cynical cash grab when it fails to fully capture Cruella de Vil’s descent from innocent schoolgirl to the imperious devil glaringly prescribed in her name. 

Ultimately, origin movies often rob villains of their villainy or that certain air of mystery so integral to the audience’s curiosity and imagination. “Cruella” is no exception. 

It is left up to the sequel, officially announced by Disney to be in early developing stages on June 4, for a more convincing portrayal of the fashion-crazed diva. 



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