When 101 Dalmations originally came out in 1961, Disney was at a serious crossroads for its animation studio. The practice of “xeroxing” animation to cut down on costs had just been rolled out, putting the contemporary adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel in real jeopardy of being perceived as a serious step down in quality when it came to the crisp, considered details that had defined the studio’s golden age. But the film ended up being innovative in other ways, mainly in how it effectively modernized the typical Disney feature film, setting a new standard for how the studio could put out movies that look and feel attuned to a heightened version of our more recent reality.
Cruella sort of does this, too, but with the last decade or so of Disney live-action remakes, many of them brimming with style and technical bona fides, but seriously lacking a justification for their efforts, at least when it comes to the stories and characters. Just going by that criteria, Cruella smokes the competition, mostly on the shoulders of its instantly iconic anti-heroine portrayed by Emma Stone.
In the original animated movie (and, by extension, the 1996 live-action remake), Cruella is a dashing, fittingly devilish fashion-obsessive who craves to skin the coats of Dalmatians because, well, she’s cruel and narcissistic. Cruella, from director Craig Gillespie, mostly buries this aspect of the villain’s psyche by giving more time to explaining her ascent (or descent?) to becoming a fashion superstar from extraordinarily humble beginnings.
Raised on the streets of London as an orphan, Cruella was originally Estella, a drifter-grifter who falls in with two salt-of-the-earth thieves, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). Using Estella’s knack for fashion, she’s able to conjure fantastic disguises for the crew, allowing them to pull off small-time heists, if only to just get by. Eventually, an opportunity comes along for Estella to impress an excessively haughty fashion powerhouse known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson), and a somewhat kid-friendlier redux of The Devil Wears Prada takes hold, with Estella paining to impress her new boss, who refuses to be impressed by anything.
But just when Cruella starts to fit into the groove of this familiar formula, it veers wildly into an other set of movie tributes, with Estella beginning to don the “Cruella” moniker in an effort to quite literally make a name for herself. It’s here that the origin story really hits its stride, loudly proclaiming a punk-rock rags-to-riches conquest set in the 70s and boasting enough needle-drops to satisfy a middle schooler who just discovered John McCrea on Spotify.
Everything about Cruella is a bit much, to be clear, but that’s really where the charm lies. It’s the exceedingly rare Disney live-action reimagining that isn’t afraid to blast new ideas and imagery into the established canon, thankfully beyond an effort to simplistically rehabilitate an irredeemable, dog-killing sociopath. Though the film could’ve been much more of a knockout if it did more to set up and confirm a reasonable explanation for how we get from this version of the character to anyone even close to resembling the one who inspires Roger’s hum-worthy jingle in the animated film.
Going further, it’s refreshing to see Disney putting real money into a type of movie teens and young adults rarely get from any studio these days. It’s hard to even imagine anyone else green-lighting a PG-13 fashion heist movie with actual murder and glorified criminal activity distinctly aimed toward kids who love to hate the original baddie. It’s just a bonus that the movie itself is this enjoyable and experimental, particularly in how it seamlessly switches between multiple genres to suit a particular scene. The fashion itself is nonsensical when taken literally of course, but it’s complemented by appropriately bombastic set design that matches the sharp, unmistakable flavor of the original film’s backgrounds, despite not feeling like its beholden to that film at all.
Surely some will be put off by the relentless montages and perhaps too long a runtime for anyone who isn’t distracted enough by the moment-to-moment fun and intrigue. But if you’re willing to absorb this film at its best, you’ll likely walk out forgetting some of its worst.
Cruella will be available to watch in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access on May 28.