Cruella — The Emmas Own the Show

Image retrieved from TMDb

When the new film Cruella was first announced, the reaction was one of dismay at another attempt to humanize an evil villain like Maleficent or Joker. And having a big time actress like Emma Stone take on the role in a seemingly moody 1970s setting didn’t do anything to slow the Joker comparisons. But thankfully, Cruella didn’t go that route and instead was a much better movie than Joker ever came close to being. 

Cruella is of course about the villain Cruella De Vil from the 1961 Disney animated classic, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Except it’s also not. While you’ll recognize names, locations, and items, this seems to be a different version of the character than the one we see in the vaulted classic (the one area in which it is actually similar to Joker). So save your bellyaching and outrage about whether Disney just tricked you into rooting for a dog killer. Because based on this movie alone, I don’t think they did.

I’ll be one of the last people to defend the creative decisions of Disney when it comes to the marketing their films and shows through intertextuality. But the point of Cruella doesn’t seem to be to directly set up the events of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Everything is recognizable, but the character of Cruella falls closer to Peter Quill on the morality spectrum than Hannibal Lecter, and the movie is better off for it.

In fact, this film is an absolute blast. Emma Stone has been consistently great in everything she’s done since she appeared as Jules in Superbad, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her come close to having this much fun playing a role. Cruella (whose given name is actually Estella) is the perfect mix between Olive from Easy A and Abigail from The Favourite. Stone has long been noted as one of the best up-and-coming performers in Hollywood. Her Oscar win for La La Land probably took the “up-and-coming” out of that title, but Cruella absolutely cements her as one of the most magnetic actors to watch on the silver screen. 

But it’s the top to bottom genius casting in this film that’s the real star. Joel Fry (from Game of Thrones and the silly best friend in Yesterday), Paul Walter Hauser (of I, Tonya and his breakout in Richard Jewell), and John McCrea (newly brought to my attention) are hilarious and standout as Cruella’s three friends, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Mark Strong bring gravitas, quirkiness, and emotion in supporting roles, and Jamie Demetriou (who I love from Fleabag and Paddington 2) steals the few scenes that he’s in. The chemistry of the cast is incredible and it makes for lots of great physical comedy. 

Saving the best for last, though, is Emma Thompson in her antagonist role as the Baroness. She begins as Estella’s idol as the most popular fashion designer in London before a “shocking” reveal turns her into Estella’s most hated rival. And Thompson is everything you could ask for and expect rom her as a villain. She’s cold, posh, commanding, and rigid, which makes her the perfect counterpoint to Estella’s sweet yet disruptive and chaotic demeanor. It’s the 40-year veteran versus the current best of the best. The biggest chunk of this movie is just watching these two titans go toe to toe. No one comes out on top because that’s not the point. They’re both so great and getting to watch the two of them share the screen while going all-out is a win for everyone.

The part of this movie that’s probably going to be divisive is that where Cruella ends up seems to be the antithesis of who Cruella De Vil is in the original cartoon. And much like Joker or literally any film adapted from a different medium, it shouldn’t matter at all what the character is “supposed” to be. Cruella uses characters and settings from the original film, but it puts its own spin on them. It’s not at all a movie about animal safety, but one about a young girl with a loving mother who turns into a young woman who’s completely on her own apart from two friends and her dog. And the thematic elements and poetic visuals that director Craig Gillespie is able to glean from these things makes it a unique, great film in its own right. 

Yes, I said “great.” The quality doesn’t only come from the fluff of the performances and humor. So much care obviously went into every aspect of the film. From costumes, to sets, to cinematography, to editing, direction, costumes again, and storytelling. Normally when you see that a studio movie like this has three credited writers (Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna), you can expect it to be absolutely all over the place. But the script seems to be tight, contained, and focused, and it really works. 

So if you go to the theater or to Disney+ to watch Cruella, don’t expect to see an origin story of a classic Disney villain that ends right where the supposed followup starts (though, you should watch the mid-credits scene). Like with every movie, please check your expectations at the door. It’s not interested in being what you expect it to be. It just wants to be a super fun story about someone discovering, and then accepting who they are.

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