Cruella de Vil has always been a Disney villain that is easy to root against. She wants to kill a bunch of puppies for crying out loud. So why would we care about her origin? Well, thankfully director Craig Gillespie, who made I, Tonya, has a few reasons. Even if Cruella, which hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, doesn't even answer how she became the villain we love to hate, the film is a blast of style, bravado filmmaking, and campy performances with a killer soundtrack to boot.
The story, written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, can't seem to accept that Cruella is a villain. It wants to make this dog killer likable. Thanks to Emma Stone's delicious performance, she is, but this never matches up with the previous incarnations of the character. Beginning with her birth and some cheeky narration, Cruella traces her life to the moment when she transitions from Estella to Cruella.
Estella loses her mother at an early age, an untimely death for which Estella blames herself. She hits the streets and soon teams up with orphans Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). The pull of small-time cons until Jasper helps him land a job at a fashion house run by the infamous Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella tries to go straight for a while, working a thankless job and trying to get a shot at designing clothes. When she drunkenly rearranges a window display, she is noticed by the Baroness and brought on as a designer. Soon truths of her past are revealed and Estella tries to keep her evil instincts in check before fully embracing them.
Set mostly in 1970s London, the film is a visual feast. Gillespie keeps his camera ever-moving like Scorsese in Goodfellas. The first hour owes a lot to that film before it borrows elements from The Devil Wears Prada. With an eclectic and pounding soundtrack, the film buzzes with chaotic energy. The costume design is a marvel, destined to be up for awards. Jenny Beavan creates look after look that will burn themselves into your memory. Whatever issues you may have with the narrative, no one can deny how pleasing the movie is to look at.
Those narrative issues stem from the film's unwillingness to acknowledge Cruella as a villain. The Baroness is made to be so despicable that puppy murder seems downright quaint. Cruella doesn't justify its connections to 101 Dalmations and might have been better off not being tied to an IP. However, it would never have gotten the Disney budget needed to pull off something this kinetic and visually stunning.
Stone does a great job giving Cruella attitude and a punk aesthetic. Thompson is wonderful as the evil baroness. The Emma vs Emma scenes are electric thanks to both actors clearly having a wonderful time. No one is safe when they sashay into a scene. Fry and Walter Hauser create memorable performances as well. Walter Hauser in particular continues to prove he is an actor who can steal any scene.
The filmmaking and acting are what elevate Cruella into one of the better live-action Disney films in some time. Does the narrative line up well with the lore of its central character? No, but the film is enough fun that you may not really care. I wish Cruella had decided to avoid making its lead character sympathetic and embraced the punk vibe that bubbles underneath the entire film. Still, you won't find a better-looking film this summer.