Movie Review: Cruella

It's more style than substance, but The Emmas make it work.

When I found out that they were making a Joker-like “origin” story about the early days of Cruella de Vil called Cruella, I cracked to a friend, “Let me guess. A pack of dalmatians killed her mother.”

Reader, I regret to inform you that this is, in fact, what happens.

To be clear up front, Cruella is not anti-dog. (But how subversive would that be? Even a card-carrying dog freak like myself would have to grudgingly admire it.) Quite the contrary, Cruella herself has a beloved dog, Buddy, a yellow terrier of indeterminate breed (my favorite kind). There’s also a sticky-pawed Chihuahua with an eyepatch named “Wink.” As for the homicidal dalmatians? They end up getting a redemption arc of sorts—turns out, there are no bad dalmatians, just bad dalmatian owners.

The other bit of origin lore that made me shake my head had to do with Cruella’s fabulous hair­—a striking, black and white ’do that has launched the careers of a thousand drag queens. It would make sense that Cruella would dye her hair this way to reflect the duality of her nature (more on that in a sec). But in fact, the black and white hair was a traumatic birth defect. Okaaaaay.

If it sounds like I hated this film, that’s not the case. There’s lots I liked about Cruella, namely the two lead performances by The Emmas—that’s Emma Stone as Cruella and Emma Thompson as her archrival, The Baroness. There’s also the fashion, which is to-die-for: Alexander McQueen meets Vivienne Westwood meets the Sex Pistols. The mod sets—the film takes place in 1970s London—are also exquisite, if a bit overwhelming. At one point I wrote in my notes: “Art directed within an inch of its life.”

Here’s the story. Young Estella (played as a child by the adorable—and gloriously named—Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) always had a dark side, an alter ego called Cruella. But thanks to a doting mother (Emily Beecham), she was able to mostly keep that dark side in check. What’s more, she had a fiercely independent and creative streak—she was always ripping up and reconstructing her school uniforms and festooning them with safety pins and buttons.

Ultimately, however, her rebellion led to her expulsion from more than one school, which led to her mother packing their bags and heading toward London. But first, they made a stop at an extremely swank party held at an extremely opulent mansion sitting ominously atop a cliff. While Estella looked on, her mother argued with a mysterious female figure at the edge of the cliff, then was tackled by a pack of snarling dalmatians and, well, you know the rest—splat. Estella always felt guilty because she had sneaked into the party and created a ruckus. She believed the dogs were after her, not her mother.

She ends up alone in London and gets discovered by two Dickensian street urchins who live in a loft-style flat (that would probably go for $5 million back in the ’70s, $20 mil today, but I digress). They take her under their wing, teaching her how to be a pickpocket and con artist and thief. Some time passes, and they become adults, with Joel Fry now playing the sensitive Jaspar (who’s maybe just a little in love with Estella) and Paul Walter Hausner as his comic sidekick, Horace.

Eventually, Estella gets a legit job at the famed department store Liberty’s of London, where her tasks include straightening up the boss’ office and cleaning toilets. One day, in a bit of a drunken late-night mayhem, she completely redesigns the Liberty store window, replete with punkish graffiti. Her boss wants to fire her, but world-renowned fashion designer The Baroness, who imperiously wades through the store as employees cower in her wake, recognizes Estella’s genius and hires her on the spot.

As conceived by Thompson, The Baroness is like a Miranda Priestly if she also was a little murder-y: queenly, proud, impatient, vain, casually cruel, and willing to do anything to stay on top. Like Priestly, she often takes credit for the design work of her staff, particularly Estella, whom she begins to lean on with increasing regularity. But that’s not what ultimately causes the rift between Estella and The Baroness, a clash so extreme it brings out Cruella, possibly for good. But you’ll have to watch the film to see what causes that.

In a way, Cruella, which was directed by Craig Gillespie, who also gave us I, Tonya (another villain origin story, come to think of it), is a lot of fabulous sets and art design and costumes searching for a movie. If you saw the trailer and thought, I want to live in that world, the film delivers—but not much more. It has a great, albeit anachronistic, soundtrack that does add to the cool factor. David Bowie, Queen, Deep Purple, and the Doors all make sense for the early ’70s time period. Blondie and The Clash? Not so much. (Then again, can one really complain about hearing Blondie and The Clash?) And The Emmas are having so much fun together—trading glares and bon mots and general fabulousness—they’re pretty irresistible.

But villain origin stories are always a bit ill-conceived (except for the OG, Wicked, that is). Of course, we root for Estella/Cruella—she’s generally more cool than cruel, an iconoclastic fashion visionary with the charm of, well, Emma Stone. At one point, the specter of her skinning dalmatians for fur is raised, but it’s just a rumor. Our Cruella would never do such a thing. But…the actual Cruella de Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians did want to skin and wear dogs. So are we supposed to like young Cruella but hate old Cruella? Or are we to assume that the evil dog snatcher of the Disney cartoon was simply misunderstood?

Either way, I prefer the playful stylings of Cruella to the gloomy, self-serious slog of Joker. And I also appreciate that this is a large-scale, big budget Disney film about…dueling fashion designers. (Another recurring character is Cruella’s friend and eventual accomplice, a Bowie-style androgyne who owns a vintage clothing store, played by John McCrea.) I truly can imagine a young boy or girl watching this film and being inspired to pick up a sketchbook and a dress form. Cruella is clearly not without its flaws, but to borrow a phrase from Tim Gunn, they made it work.

Cruella is opening in theaters and on Disney + this Friday, May 28.