Disney’s attempt to bring their beloved animated movies to “real-life” have been mostly disappointing. It’s easy enough to forget that Glenn Close brought the character of Cruella to the live-action realm back in 1996 with 101 Dalmations. So, when Emma Stone was cast to portray the famous villain in Cruella (2021), it was easy to ignore it as another cash grab from the house of mouse. However, director Craig Gillespie and a slew of writers (including Tony McNamara, writer of The Favourite (2018)) manage to give hope to the future Disney remakes, as Cruella is a fun origin story of an iconic villain.
Estella (Emma Stone) has ambitions to be a fashion designer early on. After a tragedy, she finds herself alone until meeting Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who become an unexpected family unit. They make a living running grifts until Jasper helps get Estella’s foot in the door with the Baroness (Emma Thompson). From there on, the movie has a The Devil Wears Prada (2006) vibe, heightened by the nature of Cruella and her desire for revenge.
The cast of this movie just shines through every minute – which is saying something when all of the sets and costumes look so outstanding. When the audience is introduced to the big fashion store that Estella will be working in, Gillespie and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis deliver an oner that starts from outside and above the shop, which then travels through the building to show off each exquisite detail until finally revealing the role Estella finds herself in. Flourishes like these – mixed with some amazing needle drops from the soundtrack – make the slightly over two-hour film move as each character gets their chance to win us over.
Whether it’s the complexity of the Baroness, the humor of Horace, the charm and loyalty of Jasper, or the many layers of Estella/Cruella, there is a lot to love with just these four. However, there are a few other performances that stand out, with Artie (John McCrea) being the highlight. The clearly David Bowie-inspired figure of Artie bonds quickly with Estella, and the few scenes they get together are some of my favorite character moments in the film. He is a great addition to the cast, and really adds some more levity into the movie.
Another element that makes this movie stand out amongst the other Disney live-action adaptations is the action sequences and set-pieces. Mostly because this isn’t a recreation of existing property as much as it is a reinvention of a character, there are a number of moments that are completely constructed for this movie. There is an awesome rock music-inspired fashion show, several car chases, complex heists and grifts, and tons of humor layered into all of them. I was constantly impressed with the look of the sets, as well as the stakes for the characters from moment to moment. I found myself looking forward to what was coming next, rather than knowing for sure what that something would be. While there are some allusions to the 101 Dalmations, many of them were included in interesting ways that actually brought a sense of joy rather than annoyance.
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Cruella. I’ve been mostly a naysayer to the Disney live-action films, but this is one that I, 100% endorse. If directors in the future get this much freedom to explore the space the characters belong in, then there is hope that some of these IPs can be interesting new takes on familiar characters and worlds. Cruella earns the Must-See rating.