Emma Stone is an Academy Award-winning actress whose casting seldom makes sense until Stone proves us, well, wrong. This happens once again in Disney's live-action Cruella, a Craig Gillespie helmed motion picture that seems like it ought to fail but instead soars into the upper echelon of Disney's nostalgic revisits.
Stone seems a tad too young to tackle a role such as Cruella De Vil yet tackle it she does with such refreshing pizzazz that we nearly forget Glenn Close's 1996 iconic take in 101 Dalmatians that remains great but doesn't come close to Stone's 70's British glam punk sensibility and a devilishly fun spirit that dominates the film's overly stretched 134-minute running time.
I've always been a fan of Gillespie as a filmmaker, idolizing Lars and the Real Girl as one of my all-time faves and admiring Gillespie's Fright Night remake and the live-action Disney Million Dollar Arm. Gillespie is a master at finding the heart in genuine darkness and he's unafraid to get more than a little cinematically messy.
To be fair, Cruella is a rather messy film. It's also an immensely entertaining one.
Cruella De Vil has always been a villain we love to hate. There are moments in Cruella when we hate her a little more. There are also moments in Cruella when the sparkle in Stone's eyes bursts to life and you can' help but fall in love with her. The Dueling Emmas, Stone and Thompson, are an absolute delight here and both actresses are clearly enjoying their Disneyified claws-out moments.
Cruella is a bit of a challenging PG-13 rated film. In moments, it's likely a little too dark and a little too evil for the younger crowd but it's also just a bit too playful and cartoon-inspired to really grab the teens and young adults. It feels, in fact, more inspired by Fright Night than any other of Gillespie's films but it's kinder, gentler, and a whole lot more satisfying.
If you haven't figured it out by now, Cruella is more of an origin story than a 101 Dalmatians revisit. We meet young Estella, and her alter-ego Cruella, as a young girl growing up with a single mum (Emily Beecham) who rather admires her daughter's starkly feminist streak. The name Estella will, of course, ring reminiscent to fans of Dickens. There are great expectations, indeed, for Estella even as she gets booted out of her small-town school leading her and her mum to head off in search of a better life in London.
A good majority of Cruella finds the young girl becoming a young woman alongside Paul Walter Hauser's Horace and Joel Fry's Jasper, two Artful Dodger types who've taken a shine to Estella even though she's more interested in fashion design than thievery. She snags a gig at the prestigious Liberty of London, though in this case entry level mostly means scrubbing the lavatories. However, when a drunken rearranging of an abysmal window display draws the attention of the Baroness (Emma Thompson) Estella's luck may very well be changing.
In case I haven't said it clearly enough yet, Emma Stone is deliciously evil as Cruella. She's matched nearly note-for-note by a just as delicious and even more evil Emma Thompson who turns in her best performance in years. I'm not sure it's so much that I doubted the perpetually sunny Stone's potentially for pulling off one of Hollywood's great villains...
Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I admit it. I doubted her.
At first, Estella blossoms under the watchful and critical eye of The Baroness. However, truths eventually have a way of revealing themselves and before long a certain alter ego rises to the surface with all her punk rock fury intact.
Cruella is all the better for it.
Cruella is a beautiful film. Jenny Beavan's costume design practically screams "Hand me my Oscar now!" while Nicholas Britell's original score is all swoon and swagger and sass. Lensing by Nicolas Karakatsanis is stylish and vibrant yet filled with emotional honesty and all the wonder we've come to expect from a Disney motion picture. The film's soundtrack is utterly epic and the film's ensemble is among the year's best.
Paul Walter Hauser, who rose to fame in Gillespie's I, Tonya, snags a gold medal once again as Horace, a lovable lout of a fellow whose one note is played for three or four here. Joel Fry is similarly dazzling here while Emily Beecham provides the film much of its early heart and more than a little bit of its trauma. Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mark Strong, and John McCrea all truly shine here.
Truthfully, I had rather modest expectations for Cruella. They were far surpassed. While the film overstays its welcome a tad and occasionally struggles with tone, Gillespie's boldness in the midst of normalcy is a master stroke here perfectly complementing Dana Fox and Tony McNamara's dark yet delightful storytelling.
There will undoubtedly be some naysayers for Cruella, a film that doesn't so much humanize the iconic villain as add layers of mystery and to her mayhem.
Cruella opens in theaters and on Disney+ on May 28th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic