Family-driven caper flick that explores the grey areas of villainy.
Estella (played by Emma Stone) was born different—a striking half-black-half-white hairdo that made her stand out and subjected to physical and verbal abuse growing up. But instead of being a victim, Estella always fought back and stood up to her abusers, prompting her mother to call this mean streak 'Cruella'. Aiming for a better life—and a chance to pursue her gifted talents as a fashion designer—Estella and her mother leaves their hometown for London, but along the way, finds themselves in some unfortunate circumstances that leave Estella to find her true calling.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
Cruella is the first time that we're getting an extensive backstory on one of Disney's more iconic villains. While the character has been brought to life in previous movies before (most notably by Glenn Close who also serves as one of the movie's executive producers), they were always established villains. Cruella is a prequel to the movies and delves deeper into the beginnings of an heiress bent on making fur coats out of Dalmatians.
But instead of spelling her out to be evil right from the start, Cruella blurs the lines of villainy, especially with Emma Thompson's Baroness character central to the movie.
There's no doubt that fashion plays a very important role in the movie. In fact, the choice to set Cruella in the '70s is rather ingenious. This was after all, a time when punk fashion began to make its roots and the anti-establishment sentiment serves as the point of contention as part of the movie's narrative. Cruella's more radical deconstruct-reconstruct approach to fashion is a stark contrast to the Baroness's refined elegance—almost like an aesthetic battle between Vivienne Westwood and Christian Dior.
The fashion moments are brilliantly executed and would satisfy any fashion geek. There are nods and design influences by the likes of John Galliano, Westwood of course, as well as Alexander McQueen. And the costumes all serve a purpose beyond making each character look and feel distinct.
It does end up being a typical old-versus-new subplot, but here, it's just one of many layers that's part of an overarching theme.
In her quest to find herself (not surprisingly, a balance between Estella and Cruella in the end) as well as seek vengeance for the unfortunate death of her "mother", Estella taps into her long-buried mean side. And with that, comes the unintended consequence of mistreating her chosen, adopted family, Horace and Jasper (played by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry respectively) as mere henchmen instead of partners in crime.
Yet, it's in the attempt of making a fool of the Baroness (because what better way is there to bring down a fashion genius than to make a mockery of her old-fashioned designs) that Estella discovers her true identity. And what she chooses to do with that information makes for an excellent climax to the movie.
Special mention goes to Emma Stone's work on her British accent. It was, at the very least, believable.
What we didn't like
Of course, there's the typecasting of a flamboyant David Bowie-type character as the one person who understands fashion and appreciates Estella/Cruella's genius. Every fashion-centric movie—from the autobiographical to the most fictional—seems to have a requirement for a seemingly gay sidekick and in Cruella, it's no different.
Artie, though amazingly portrayed by John McCrea, acts as a fairy godmother of sorts for Estella/Cruella. But that relationship isn't completely fleshed out aside from the "you're different like me so we're family" trope. It just seems convenient and rushed. Are we also to believe that the owner of a small vintage fashion store would have an army of seamstresses at his disposal (not to mention the amount of material) to help with making Cruella's designs a reality?
What to look out for
One scene that I definitely didn't see coming involves a dress that Estella (quite manipulatively) is tasked to design for the Baroness's spring collection. The intricate dress requires Estella to embellish its entirety by hand with its true intended reason for being revealing itself at the most critical point of the movie. And then it all careens and the storyline gets even more mischievous from then on…
But also, stay on for the mid-credits scene involving Anita Darling and Roger—the main husband-and-wife characters of 101 Dalmatians.
Cruella is now out in theatres or order it on Disney+ with Premier Access from 28 May 2021.