Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 26th, 2021
Cruella (Craig Gillespie, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Establishing backstories of notorious cinematic villains can offer an opportunity not only to update the narrative, but to switch perspectives and flip our allegiances. Witness the appeal of films like Maleficent and Joker, to name but two. Now comes Cruella, directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), which brings us the great Dalmatian-hater de Vil, herself, from girlhood to emergence as powerhouse to be reckoned with. This is no mild reworking of the original, animated 101 Dalmatians (or its live-action remake). Instead, it is a complete reimagining of the eponymous character and her motivations. Featuring not one, but two Emmas (Stone and Thompson), the movie also offers a magnificent duel between stars of different generations, each giving all that she has to deliver a rousing affair. Is it long? Yes, by about 30 minutes, but it’s still good fun.
We start in 1964, with tween Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Emily and the Magical Journey), already bedecked with her signature black-and-white coif, never quite fitting in at school. After one fight too many, she leaves her mother little choice but to decamp for London for a fresh start. Along the way, they make a stop at the palatial home of a hoped-for patroness. Sadly, the visit ends in tragedy (courtesy of a trio of Dalmatians), sending Estella off on her own to the capital. There, she makes friends with two street urchins, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), who, like her, have a pet dog they bring everywhere. Together, they form a merry band of thieves.
Time passes quickly, and soon Estella is played by Stone (The Favourite), Jasper by Joel Fry (In the Earth) and Horace by Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell). As young adults, they still pursue a rebellious life of crime, though Estella has never given up on her goal of becoming a fashion designer. When Jasper sets up a job interview for her in one of London’s swankiest department stores, it puts her in the sights of “The Baroness,” the most influential, and powerful, designer of them all. Enter Thompson (Late Night), who quickly recognizes in Estella a talent to acquire for her own label. Perhaps the dream of lost innocence may yet be attainable.
Or not. First, there are adventures and misadventures to be had, courtesy not only of Estella’s helpers and their very resourceful one-eyed chihuahua, but of our protagonist, herself, who adopts the titular moniker once she discovers the Baroness’s true nature, including the role she played in her tragic girlhood. As old and new battle for supremacy, the story rollicks forth, courtesy of jaunty music and delightful production design. Though we began in the ‘60s, we end firmly ensconced in the ‘70s, the look and feel of the scenes changing (mostly) to fit.
As entertaining a confection as it is, the bloat begins to show around one-hour-and-forty-five-minutes. A nip here, a tuck there, perhaps even more than that … all could serve to tighten the pace. Still, it’s an overall satisfying experience, thanks to the entire ensemble and the visuals, as well as substantive discussions on the difficulties women face in a man’s world. There’s even a direct tie-in to the source material at the end, courtesy of Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Happily) and future husband Roger (Kayvan Novak, Hulu’s What We Do in the Shadows series). Cruella may struggle to find her purpose in life, but when she does, we are right there with her, cheering her on. Oh, and those Dalmatians? They definitely learn who’s boss.