When Dodie Smith first wrote Cruella de Vil into her 1956 children’s classic, The One Hundred And One Dalmatians, she probably didn’t picture her antagonist moshing through a flaming fountain in the middle of Regent’s Park to the tune of Iggy Pop’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. Anyone expecting anything like the book, the 1961 animation or either of the two ’90s live-action remakes might be in for a shock, but Disney’s latest unnecessary origin story feels a lot more necessary than most – recasting everyone’s favourite puppy skinner into a punk provocateur and crafting a gorgeous, ballsy backstory that actually adds something instead of taking it away.
Do we really need to know the exact root cause for everything every Disney villain ever does? Of course not, and director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Pam & Tommy) gets most of the meat over with in a short prologue: young Estella gets bullied at school for having weird black and white hair, fights a mean-streak she nicknames “Cruella”, and watches her mum get murdered by a pack of savage dalmatians in the middle of a fashion show. Boom. How’s that for motivation?
Fast forward 10 years and we’re in the mid-’70s. Estella, now played by Emma Stone, is balancing a retail job at Liberty with a side-line in petty crime – one career a way of introducing us to her longtime sidekicks/goons, Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), and the other, an excuse for Gillespie to give us a long Scorsese-style tracking shot through one of London’s oldest department stores to the Zombies’ ‘Time Of The Season’.
Far cooler than any Disney movie has a right to be, Cruella spends the first half an hour looking and sounding like Goodfellas for kids. It skips through a killer jukebox soundtrack (The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Clash…) in freeze frames and voiceovers, giving us a rock ’n’ roll period piece that’s only a bit of sex and drugs away from being a proper Vivenne Westwood biopic.
When Estella’s eye for window dressing gets noticed by feared fashion designer Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson, channelling Anna Wintour), she takes her under her wing and pushes the film closer to The Devil (or de Vil?) Wears Prada. Not that the fashion focus lasts too long either, as an old family secret spills and Estella starts to lose herself in her own dark side, beginning to fill out the famous fur coat in a thick third act full of dog-napping, jewellery heists and murder plots.
Between the beautiful cinematography and fabulous costume design (both surely a shoo-in for the next awards season) there’s enough to love about Cruella that it’s easy to forgive a few silly twists and obvious plot contrivances – the more so every time Stone and Thompson are on screen. As the older, nastier fashionista, Thompson has a lot more gorgeous scenery to chew, but Stone owns every moment of Estella/Cruella’s rise to infamy, giving us a damaged schizoid orphan and a devilish new supervillain at the same time.
Too dark and scrappy for very young audiences expecting a cute dog movie, cool kids (and cool parents) will love Cruella for daring to put a bit of bite into the backstory. Heavy hints are dropped throughout about how the film could/should link back up with the 101 Dalmatian-verse (stick around for the end credit sting), and while we absolutely definitely don’t need another live-action remake of another great Disney classic, if a sequel gives Stone another chance to sink her teeth into Cruella de Vil, we’re already sold.
- Director: Andrew Gillespie
- Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong
- Release date: May 27 (in cinemas), May 28 (on Disney+ with Premier Access)