What would have been a Christmas release in 2020 now gets abruptly re-programmed as a early summer blockbuster from Disney; this prequel to the live-action 101 Dalmatians film is a very different breed to the Glenn Close starrers. In the way that Joker revised our view of Batman’s nemesis, Cruella is the back-story of Cruella DeVil, as featured in Dodie Smith’s original 1956 novel and several films since. Now a sympathetic character rather than a villainess, Craig Gillespie’s film doesn’t quite mesh with what we know of Cruella, and fudges a few key points, but it’s still a plush, prestige Disney product that has a fun, original angle.
The black and white hair, the piercing eyes; Cruella DeVil is such a bizarre-looking creation that any number of actresses could have played the part; Emma Stone might seem rather too wholesome for the role, but a committed performance washes away any doubts. Stone plays Estella, a young girl who seeks revenge for the mistreatment and death of her mother (Emily Beecham) at the gloved hands of fashion impresario The Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella gets a job working for the Baroness, but soon their rivalry spills out into open hostility, and a second cliff-top showdown is on the cards….
Gillespie made something striking from the life-story of Tonya Harding and her mother, and manages to work the same magic here; this is a colossal bitch-fest and surprisingly off brand for Disney. While cigarettes remain unlit, we see Cruella get smashed on booze in the window displays of a London store; any questions of imitable behaviour for children are left redundant when Cruella later crashes a van through the public area of the police headquarters. Stone and Thompson seem to relish their roles, the costumes are sensational, and the music choices are generally fresh, although using The Clash to signify London went out in the 90’s.
Cruella is a far better constructed film than Joker, but lacks the slapstick that might have commended it to general family audiences. More of a drama than an adventure, it’s a strong and original film from the Disney brand, and shows that the girls involved want to do more than just have fun. If nothing else, producers deserve a large gold watch for identifying Liberty’s of London as a likely place for Cruella to inhabit, and the inspired casting of Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser as henchmen Jasper and Horace, a perfect match for their animated predecessors.