Consider me stunned. Okay, “stunned” might be too strong an adjective but I will admit to being more than just simply pleasantly surprised by Disney’s devilishly entertaining Cruella. Even lifelong dog lovers will be won over with this engaging tale of loss, loyalty, and cut-throat high fashion hijinks that reveals the hidden backstory of 101 Dalmatians’ canine-hating villain.
Cruella traces Cruella de Vil’s roots beginning as an infant born with a shocking head of black and white hair that would make a skunk turn green with envy. Her given name, “Estella,” was only occasionally swapped out for “Cruella” by her mom, and then only when the brash, rebellious young girl who fearlessly stood up for herself was in trouble. Cruella was the darker, uncontrollable side of Estella, and her mom warned her to keep that part of herself in check.
After a devastating series of events, Estella’s childhood shifts from a comfortable enough life with a loving mom to one spent on the streets with a couple of fellow orphans – Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) – who become her lifelong friends/accomplices. They grift their way through their teen years to young adulthood and as Estella (Emma Stone) matures, her dream of becoming a fashion designer grows stronger.
One thing (which I can’t mention) leads to another (which I also can’t mention), and Estella’s back is forced against the wall. She has no real option other than to give over control to Cruella and let her wicked side stitch together a plan to not only survive but thrive.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that but it’s necessary given the twists, turns, and multiple big reveals to paint a story with as broad a brush as possible. There are Dalmatians (as revealed in the trailer), but it’s a couple of smaller doggies who will worm their way into your heart in this engaging backstory. Wink and Buddy play big roles and are important members of the gang. They’re pretty much the canine version of cat burglars if the term cat burglars referred to actual felines.
Emma Stone competes with the gorgeous costumes designed by Jenny Beavan to be the film’s main draw. Stone wins out, but Beavan’s beautiful designs are a close second. The La La Land Oscar winner is terrific as Estella but even better as the slightly demented Cruella.
Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Howards End) knows how to play understated evil like nobody’s business. Thompson stars as Baroness von Hellman, a legendary fashion designer whose luster is fading. The narcissistic Baroness who hires Estella turns out to have a history of making her enemies disappear.
Stone and Thompson are surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast that includes Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea (“Artie),” Kirby Howell-Baptiste (“Anita Darling”), and Mark Strong (“John”). Not a bad apple in the bunch and each has their own moment to shine in this twisted tale that charts the making of a major Disney baddie.
Prior to Cruella, I’d have told you the odds of me growing to like the 101 Dalmatians’ queen of mean would have been the same as me outshining Simone Biles on the vault at this summer’s Olympics. Not gonna happen. My furry work assistant, Sookie (a Corgi named after Charlaine Harris’ half-fairy vampire magnet), would back me up on that. But Cruella screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara whip up a redemption story that does the near-impossible by turning the notorious dognapper into a sympathetic figure.
The 101 Dalmatians spinoff/backstory is darker than expected, slightly longer than it needs to be, and much more intense than what’s teased in the trailers. The youngest fans of the animated Disney classic aren’t this live-action spinoff’s target audience; it’s definitely a solid PG-13.
Cruella’s a crime caper with canines, couture, and a crazy collection of colorful characters. Screenwriters Fox and McNamara and director Craig Gillespie weave a delicious punk rock-ish edge into the story that’s surprising and hugely entertaining. Fun, with fabulous costumes and a killer soundtrack, this deep dive into the Disney vault for new material pays off with a film that doesn’t disappoint. (And yes, that’s a jab at Maleficent and its sequel.)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes