Cruella de Vil, ever since her inception, has been a spectacle. She’s punk, she’s stylish, she has an obviously unlikable audacious attitude, and she’s a puppy killer… one who skins our adorably spotted fur friends to make coats, no less! Going into this much-anticipated retelling of a villain’s origin story, I was expecting more of a ‘The Devil Wears Perdie’ kinda attitude to the filmmaking and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara don’t add to the thematic complexity to this truly original character by much. But God knows that ‘Cruella’ is such a sexy, fun and devastatingly devilish ride, that hell, I’ll take what I can get.
What is the story about?
The “different” Estella found no acceptance amongst her peers, but gets unconditional love from her mum. That is until a tragic accident involving some… you guessed it, dalmatians, renders Estella (Emma Stone) an orphan. Out on the streets in ‘70s London, she is taken in by two kind-hearted thieves, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) who school her in their slick ways. As if destined, Estella has a penchant for designing bold and boisterous haute-couture and she lands herself a job at West End’s premiere fashion house under the powerful but diabolical Baroness (Emma Thompson) when the era of punk-rock fashion is on its rise. Thus begins a battle for supremacy, in which both Emmas are in glorious form outdoing each other.
Cruella de Vil is mean-spirited and hateful as we remember her, and a lot of that is owing to her (and her arch-nemesis’) abuse of power. I mention this off the bat because it’s tricky to justify that kind of behaviour for a character who is soaked in self-pity and revenge. Taking off from where ‘Joker’ (another villain origin story which alas, I did not enjoy) left off, let me just say that there is no other popular screenwriting technique other than a backstory of psychological loss to take away the unpleasantness that surrounds such a character. So, the writing certainly isn’t a breakthrough. There is a lack of nuance and worthy-of-compassion angle to this figure. It would bode well if we didn’t bother with the parables with the original Disney tale.
But now that I have that out of the way, let’s get to the real triumph of this film. ‘Cruella’ is borderline camp without it being self-aware and referential, but it has been presented in a completely serious and wickedly designed package where the war between two supposedly cartoonish (one quite literally) characters seems to reach the levels of a war that only idiosyncratic historical figures could wage. The film just throws a volley of absurdities at you that you can’t help but think, wait… this would be really cool, if it happened in real life. At one point, a dress just blows up in flames to reveal another, Cruella emerges from a garbage dump only to reveal that she’s wearing it, and narrowly escapes with a maniacal laugh that I’ve only seen in children’s TV shows. It should all be bizarre and laughable, and yet, there is some gravitas to the oddness of it all. Perhaps it all comes down to one line - the Baroness calls Cruella a brilliant designer and a wicked genius. The style and aesthetic of ‘Cruella,’ along with the devilish plot (or Cruella’s plotting) by Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis somehow make up for the film’s flaws, thus bringing forth the decadent appeal of an industry that is driven by appearances.
But my cynicism aside, the humanity of the film is also in its genius casting. Emma Stone delivers a career-best performance as a young oddball who slowly transforms into a vixen who crashes glamourous balls and generally wreaks havoc everywhere. Her accent is remarkable, with her make-up and hair becoming her dramatic extension. The other Oscar-winning Emma (Thomspon) makes bitchiness an artform by being a true villain - one who has no sympathetic origin story. She is evil and she f***ing owns it. Fry and Hauser round it up adding the human element to the cast, one which alludes to the pathos of how you must lose out on the innocence and sweetness of friendship and connection if you want to be powerful.
Music & Other Departments
Nicolas Karakatsanis capitalises on the swift and kinetic action and the tone of the characters for slick movement. ‘Cruella’ is one of those rare films that is driven by an over-indulgent yet stunning soundtrack featuring classic after classic - from the Beatles, to the Stones, Supertramp, Nina Simone, The Zombies, Deep Purple and Blondie (a real triumph for supervisor Susan Jacobs). The set pieces, fashion and aesthetic co-created by production designer Fiona Crombie, costume designer Jenny Beavan and Hair and Make-Up designer Nadia Stacey are simply out-of-this-world. The whole film looks and sounds wildly imaginative.
Strong central performances are what drive Cruella’s action. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are dynamic in every individual scene, and firecrackers in those together. With massive set pieces, stylish costumes, great music, and jaw-dropping moments, the film is as one expects a Disney film to be - a massive extravaganza.
We live in a cynical time and meanness rules the roost. So, if we’re combining that with some marginalised punk feminist representation, I’m all for it.
In spite of the visually invigorating results, at more than two hours, ‘Cruella’ struggles with pacing issues. It is almost exhausting to follow the bombardment of aural and visual elements in every scene and the writing certainly doesn’t hold well if connected to ‘101 Dalmatians.’ ‘Cruella’ seems too artificial for kids and somewhat juvenile for everyone else. But it’s a crime romp that features such fantastic and fantastical elements, that we just let that pass.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes! At the moment, I am reeling in pleasure after watching ‘Cruella,’ because I feel the eponymous villain would expect no less than a spectacle in her name, and this film delivers. Ask me again tomorrow, I might say the opposite.
Do I recommend it?
Yes! It’s intriguingly inviting and first impressions will be solid.