Origin stories, including villain origin stories, are a core staple of the movie-going landscape in the 21st Century. A curious mind may seek to ask the creators of a particular such film—“why do we need this film?” As far as origin stories go, Disney’s upcoming Cruella, starring Emma Stone as the younger, hipper version of the puppy-napping baddie, does not quite answer that question. But what it lacks in philosophical self-justification, Craig Gillespie’s film makes up for with a relentless series of amusing skits, flashy costumes, and spot-on performances. Though Cruella may not answer the question, “Why did this movie need to be made?” question, it at least succeeds in posing another: “Why not?”
The whole idea behind these “prequel”-type tales, presumably, is to offer a new take, to upend the established assumptions and even show the human facet of a previously maligned individual. Disney has done this more or less successfully, at least the first time Angelina Jolie starred as the former Mistress of Evil, Maleficent. Rediscovery is, after all, a modern Disney staple—with more progressive, inclusive messages of love and friendships replacing the dated gender stereotypes. Gone are the princesses who wait for a prince to kiss them in their sleep (Snow White), who give up their voice and their family to be with the dashing prince (The Little Mermaid). The day of the subversive heroine who may not even look for love (Frozen), and who was previously considered to be evil, are the order of the day. Cruella even features Disney’s first openly gay character (John McCrea as designer Artie) as per Disney’s advertisement.
But reinvention only takes Disney so far, and Cruella is no exception. Traditional Disney pillars — the loss of parents, the status as an orphanage, and, most curiously, a natural antagonism between older and younger women — are alive and kicking. This time around, the story opens when a young girl, Estella, accompanies her mother Catherine (Emily Beechman) to a stunning seaside mansion where she meets (SPOILERS) a tragic demise (remember Bambi?) in a confrontation with the dismissive Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Estella runs away, believing herself responsible for her mother’s death (remember Simba?). Fast forward to a few years—and a couple of bad influences—later, and Estella has become a rebellious, aspiring designer. As fate would have it, a series of fortunate events lands her a coveted spot as a young apprentice to the unspeakably cruel Baroness herself, setting off a series of events that should take us from London’s West End to the eve of a titanic heist of Dalmatians.
Disney’s years’-long obsession with characters that have no parents has always made some intuitive sense — it appeals to kids who may feel at times like the House of Mouse is a second home, the one they can turn to when the one they live in turns away from them. For Estella, this refuge comes from her street-faring friends, petty thieves Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper Badun (Joel Fry) and street urchin-turned-reporter Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a gang of misfits twist that harkens all the way back to the Seven Dwarfs. It is the studio’s fixation on what it seems to believe is a classic, natural enmity between the older woman who feels threatened by the upcoming ingénue that has always seemed more perplexing, and doubly so in the context of villainess origin stories—what is the point, after all, of replacing one former bad girl with another? For Cruella, it is that uneasy relationship between the talented Estella and the Baroness that feels the least convincing of the otherwise entertaining movie’s successful elements.
Cruella—set in 1970s London and around Estella’s fabulous dress designs and the Baronness’ even more bombastic houses and extravagant parties—is dog-nip, so to speak, for fans of well-crafted below-the-line work, the excellent kind one expects from a Disney production. The film features stylish and intriguing costumes by Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan, a fresh, younger, bicolor look for Ms. Stone by Hair and Makeup Designer Nadia Stacey, complex, varied, and luxurious sets by Production Designer Fiona Crombie, and a characteristically playful score by the hyper-talented Oscar-nominee behind Moonlight’s soundtrack, Nicholas Britell (now officially a big tent studio sellout!). Each of these elements combines in perfect unison to keep you looking, and even sufficiently distracted from the at-times frustrating screenplay and the unnecessarily bulky 2 hour 15 minutes plus runtime.
It is not that Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s script is not funny — it truly is — but it feels dishonest to be watching a supposedly fresh take on a rotten villain through the lens of a now-timelessly classic bad girl, Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada. Given the boundless talent behind the actress who portrays the Baroness in an amusingly cruel crescendo and even the similar career of choice, the only daylight left between the antagonist in Cruella and the one in the 2007 movie is the screenwriter’s decision to push the Baroness from mean to repulsively vile, a questionable choice that makes questionable the story’s earlier invitation to enjoy the sardonic wit of the Baroness.
Plot excesses aside, Cruella is yet another movie visiting theaters this Memorial Day weekend that makes it worth going back to the cineplex. Most surprising of all, certainly to her detractors, will be Ms. Stone’s handling of the evolution of this character, from innocent to vengeful, to really conflicted and mean. One particular scene in front of a London fountain showcases the Oscar winner’s vast talent, even in the middle of the film whose technical largess demands little of her. Ms. Thompson’s turn, by contrast, is perhaps less surprisingly good, but no less pitch perfect. It is hard to see this lauded actress as anything but a tight-lipped, stern British taskmaster, and easy to forget she too once played the innocent flower whose mantle has now fallen to the younger generations.
As Cruella winds through the script’s at times labyrinthine plot twist—sometimes in Estella’s punk rock motorcycles, sometimes in stilts—one remembers that Disney’s productions hit, at a minimum, a better than average tone, more often than not. Disney is not interested in rationalizing its choice to revisit the classics in its library, because it knows it does not have to—entertaining you (and leaving things open for the sequel) is just enough.
Walt Disney Pictures will release Cruella in theaters and on Disney+ for a Premium Fee on May 28, 2021. All photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.