Not without its faults, Cruella still manages to balance the fine art of its punk-70s aesthetic with roaring success all the while being undeniably enjoyable
“They say there are fives stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Well, I’d like to add one more… revenge”
At this point, the Walt Disney Company are churning out remakes, reboots and reimaginings with little thought of quality like there’s no tomorrow. So it seemed likely that Cruella would become lost in a growing filmography that would relegate it to the realm of forgetfulness. That is of course if it wasn’t embodying a killer aesthetic, great performances, superb costumes and, most importantly, having fun with one of Disney’s most iconic villains: Cruella De Vil.
As the origin of one of Disney’s most fabulous villains, Cruella charts the tale of its titular character from being orphaned and living on the streets to the rise of her pop-punk fashionista fame of the 70s while rivalling with The Baroness (Emma Thompson). To say any more on the narrative would spoil the fun of Cruella because that’s something the film excels at. Whether it be in its litany of 70s pop tracks, its mesmerising approach to costume, or tapping into the comedic cheese of films like Police Academy and its crime-caperism attuned to the likes of the Oceans movies, Cruella is a barrel of fun without losing focus on being an engaging tale. As an origin story, it oozes uniqueness and style even if it fails to bridge the gaps between its newest, albeit younger, version of Cruella and the much older incarnation that first appeared in the 1961 animation 101 Dalmatians. On the other hand, it can’t help but falter in being over-indulgent in what it assumes to be the film’s “big-twist” with a half-baked explanation that frankly comes out of nowhere. Sometimes it feels like it’s juggling too much narratively, and that doesn’t do any credit when its best moments are its unique spins on heists, mayhem and revenge.
Yet, Cruella expands on an iconic villain while also building its own version at the same time. While Emma Stone’s turn at the role never feels as dastardly as Betty Lou Gerson’s original animated voiceover, nor does it contain the same zaniness of Glenn Close’s version in the 1996 live-adaptation, she brings a more complex and troubled characterisation that’s cemented in the film’s setup of nature vs nurture. Like the binaries of her black and white hair, Cruella’s desire for revenge becomes caught in the inner turmoil that puts both sides of her personality into conflict and it’s something that Stone embodies perfectly, becoming yet another iconic iteration of an already great character while attesting to the psychological complexity of being human. That’s not to say she’s the only excellent Emma on set. Emma Thompson’s performance as Baroness is equally as iconic for a whole set of different reasons, playing with the upper-class elitism of the fashion world and acting as the domino that forces Cruella to become the character we know her as today. It’s only a shame then when a rough start with abysmal child actors hounds its expositional-heavy opening, or Jamie Demetriou’s Gerald seems too out of place and forced to feel right at home with the surrounding characters. For such a formidable story, it’s good it gets these hiccups out of the way in the first 30 minutes, but the scenes last too long and feel too painful to go without mention.
However, as Cruella juggles the substance of its narrative it also produces an eclectic visual style that is incredibly appealing. Costume designer Jenny Beavan, who won an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road, is the perfect hire to bring the 70s-punk aesthetic to life, offering bold designs, unique costumes and exemplifying the idea of fashion as an art. From the black and white styles of Cruella to the more classic attire of the Baroness, each costume is distinct and remarkable, reaching its epitome in the reveal of a certain garbage-inspired Cruella design. Alongside the costumes, other stylistic choices that only helps Cruella create its own identity identity include a stellar, if sometimes overused, soundtrack ranging from 60s-70s hits that is woven into the fabric of Cruella’s origins. While it lacks the craftsmanship of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver or even James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, that doesn’t stop it from opening up some killer moments.
However, what ruins great visual flare is sloppy CGI and sadly Cruella has plenty of examples. That’s not to say it’s atrocious or obnoxiously frequent, but it’s very noticeable when a real dog is traded for a CGI recreation (just look at the Dalmatians when they chase anyone), or when its most memorable costume reveal is then extended with lifeless, flappy fabric. In a film built to celebrate visual art, this unfortunately means it puts all aspects of its mise-en-scene up for scrutiny, making its shortcomings painfully obvious.
As Cruella came to a close, it’s undeniable that against the backdrop of Disney’s current trend to revisit old material, there’s something here with unmistakable character. While Cruella can’t quite live up to the lofty heights it aspires to be, it’s still worth becoming lost in its approach to style that gives in a beautiful visual identity that’s impossible not to fall in love with.