When it comes to ranking villains from the House of Mouse, Cruella De Vil is a fan favorite meanie. Many devotees have been excitedly waiting for “Cruella,” the live action feature film from director Craig Gillespie about the early days of one of Disney’s most notorious and selfish scoundrels. I bring good news to them: the film handily does the Dalmatian-hating, fur-loving, fashion obsessed character justice.
Set in London in the 1970s, the film touches briefly on young Estella, a child who makes a living grifting folks on the streets of the city. She befriends a pair of boy thieves and the trio get into all sorts of mischief. As they grow older, Estella’s natural fashion sense gains the attention of legendary designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), and she offers the young woman a job. Things become increasingly tumultuous between the pair as revelations come to light, causing Estella to embrace her most wicked side — that of the nasty, revenge seeking Cruella (Emma Stone).
This is one of the most anti-Disney movies to come out of the studio in years. It’s quite dark and filled with tragedy, and may not be the best choice for very young kids. Dogs, people, and infants are all shown in great peril, and the film may scare kids who are already nervous around dogs or have a fear of abandonment. “Cruella” doesn’t feel as if it was made to be universally family-friendly, but instead grew out of the desire to please preteen and older fans of the villain.
Origin stories are usually fun, and this one makes sense. The story stays true to the characters, yet places inventive spins on what lies at the heart of their behavior. The casting is perfect, with a terrific turn by Stone as she goes through a complete transformation from kind to cruel. She is excellent at exploring the polar opposite and more difficult sides of the character. Thompson is a knockout as the savage Baroness, dialing back her performance just enough so that she never gets too extravagant when indulging her character’s most heinous behavior. She’s a delight to watch on screen, her talent well-matched with Stone’s.
Some will (correctly) assert that the film feels a lot like an homage to “The Devil Wears Prada,” and that’s a more than fair comparison. This probably has to do with the lead characters being two razor-tongued women who trade barbs while working in the fashion industry, but it’s also because of the chic eye candy by costume designer Jenny Beavan. A crucial element to making a movie like this work is the original fashion, and Beavan has created some inventive and truly inspired works of wearable art. The costume designer has to be great, and she doesn’t let anyone down here.
“Cruella” clocks in with a runtime of 2 hours, 14 minutes and while it’s slow in a few parts, it never runs out of story. The ending sets the film up for a sequel and although I’m unsure where Disney could take these characters in future films, I’d like to see more of them all. This is a solid, quality film with elevated performances, a smashing soundtrack, and a slightly sinister sensibility that’s going to please fans.