Cruella is a vaguely retro costume party with a persistent retro playlist – a treat for fashion-loving kids who have been flogged by the boomers and Gen Xers who hold the keys to the Disney IP locker. And there’s a millennial Oscar winner in the title role. When I say there’s something for everyone, I’m not being sarcastic, although I’m not entirely polite either.
This revisionist supervillain genesis story, directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) doesn’t offer much really new, but still feels fresher than Disney’s recent live-action endeavors. In the slightly Dickensian story of how Cruella DeVil, the notorious bitch hater of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”, was added, there is a certain visual wit and pop glamor to be felt.
Howard Thompson reviewed the original animated adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel for The Times in 1961, noting that “the children who survived” Psycho “should survive Cruella”. Pretty scary stuff! Times are changing: no puppies, CGI or anything else are hurt in this movie. Cruella – originally known as Estella and played by a harmless growling Emma Stone – actually likes dogs (though she has a particular grudge against Dalmatians).
This is not a “wild card,” so Cruella’s transgressive energies are held within social acceptance and PG-13 ratings. Her motive is vengeance, and her methods include cheating, theft, and cheating, but the closest thing she gets to evil is occasional selfish insensitivity to her friends. She is not a monster. She is an artist and her theatrically outrageous misconduct is a sign of her uncompromising creativity.
Cruella’s boastful, eclectic spirit coincides with the idea of the 1970s film of London, its supposed setting. The aesthetics are sophisticated, glamorous and also punky, and the musical selection zigzags from “Their Satanic Majesties Request” to “London Calling”. No deep cuts here, just an eclectic selection of Dad Rock Essentials. The choices can be a bit on the nose – Stone’s first appearance as an adult Estella with dyed purple hair is heralded by “She’s a Rainbow” – but my middle-aged ears weren’t offended. Special praise to Gillespie and Susan Jacobs, the music supervisor, for the recording of the Stooges song “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a song without a confused subtext that fits perfectly with a spin-off of the “Dalmatians”.
The greatest hits oldies package, coupled with Nicholas Britell’s sleek score, keeps things alive even when the plot gets sluggish or hectic. Jenny Beavan’s costumes and production design by Fiona Crombie, which adorn chic department stores, bohemian thrift stores and couture palaces, catch the eye even as the characters wander around town in search of coherent motifs.
Estella starts out as a renegade schoolgirl (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) with two-tone hair and soon ends up orphaned and alone in London. She befriends two pickpockets, Jasper and Horace, who grow up to be Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. At this point, she adds a journalist (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and a used clothing lover (John McCrea) to her entourage.
Estella’s archenemy and role model is a famous designer known as the Baroness, a self-described genius who recalls Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”, Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread” and of course Cruella DeVil in both cartoon and Glenn Close incarnations. Luckily, the role belongs to Emma Thompson, who she plays as a haughty, feline predator who is alternately annoyed, angry, and bewitched by Stone’s angry mouse.
The movie itself is about less intense emotions, which makes it easy enough to watch but difficult to take care of. Their main purpose is to remind you that there are other films out there that could describe Disney’s current business strategy as a whole. At best, it could also inspire you to spin some old records or dress up in those weird clothes that suffered in the back of the closet during those bleak sports months.
Rated PG-13. Danger to and from dogs. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. Available in theaters and on Disney +.