It’s easily established in the first ten minutes why Cruella hates Dalmatians. Estella’s nickname by her mother

Disney has been plowing through an animated live action remakes, some are static recreations like Mulan or Cinderella, others take different angles like Maleficent and now Cruella, a sorta prequel to the animated film. This wild movie is about five different genres mashed up into a blender with a classic punk and pop soundtrack with influences ranging from 101 Dalmatians, Harley Quinn, The Devil Wears Prada, The Favourite, some Oceans Eleven and a dash of revenge movies. Cruella may bounce back and forth about what it wants to be, but it looks consistently kind of great and the performances are fun. It may try a wee bit too hard to make an eventual attempted puppy killer a cool antihero but the movie a fun, weird ride.

In the 1970s, orphan Estella (Emma Stone) is living with her two criminal buddies, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). They spend their days stealing from unsuspecting saps but Estella yearns for a larger life. She gets cleaning job and her drunken destruction of a department store front mannequin attracts the attention of the flashy fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). The Baroness is in possession of a necklace that belonged to Estella’s mother, so Estella begins a campaign of revenge. Adapting the name Cruella she upstages Baroness at every event, becoming the hot new thing on the fashion scene. Although, Cruella finds out a deep dark secret about her past that upends everything she ever knew.
There’s a wee bit of everything gets an origin story overdose here that can happen in prequels. It’s easily established in the first ten minutes why Cruella hates Dalmatians. Estella’s nickname by her mother when the kid was being mean is “Cruella” and she adapts it as her moniker. Even her last name “de Vil” is shown to have come from a car. At one point, Cruella glares at a bunch of playing Dalmatians and quips that their fur would make a great coat. One prequel moment that works well is the mid-credits scene that connects to the animated film.
Stone as Cruella puts in a great performance, close to being loudly campy but it fits. She has some fidgety comedic bits mostly at the start when she’s a janitor ignored by her employer. In her fashion job, she is offhandedly cut by Baroness and the other woman simply looks at the drop of blood and then asks if they have that shade of red. When Estella goes Cruella, Stone has a delightfully bombastic line deliveries. Although there’s still human moments like when everything is looking down and she gives a defiant speech about what she is going to do. There’s a lot of times when she says “I’m Cruella” which gets a bit repetitive but it can be seen as her telling it to herself until she believes it.
When she is Cruella she becomes a madwoman leader to her burglar buddies, something that Jasper takes offense to. Horace is too dim witted to even care if she’s calling the shots. It lays out the groundwork for the eventual animated movie where Cruella is bossing the guys around. Mark Strong pops up as the Baroness’ manservant holding a deep, dark secret that is eventually revealed to Cruella. Even though his role is small, Strong puts oomph behind his lines. What is revealed gives dramatic heft to the final confrontation but is also kind of superfluous. The important thing is that Cruella and Baroness are vying for the top of the fashion world, it didn’t extra motivation on top.

Thompson as Baroness is nicely mean without any redeeming values which makes for a good antagonist. When Cruella asks that Baroness is going to kill her simply for showing her up, Baroness just responds “Uh-huh” offhandedly. The movie shifts rather abruptly between camp and pathos but, individually speaking, scenes work. When Cruella starts stealing attention away from Baroness, it gets utterly absurd like her pulling up in a garbage truck that turns into a dress tail. It’s sort of like a fashion version of The Prestige with increasingly elaborate competitor screw jobs.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) Cruella has a sweeping visuals that fits the cartoonish personalities. The production and costume design is cool and very flashy, like when Cruella is wearing an eye-mask that just says “The Future” to proclaim she is the hot new thing. There’s an outdoors fashion show with awesome usage of the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog”. Even the final scene uses Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” which has been overused in dozens of movies but, oddly, it works really well for the character. Florence + the Machine contributes a jaunty new track, “I Am Cruella” that plays over the final credits that incorporates the “Cruella de Vil” song in a funky way.
As far as Disney’s recent remakes of their animated back catalogue, Cruella is one of the more interesting ones. It isn’t as plodding copy and paste as The Lion King remake was, instead this a unique spin on a well-known animated villainess. It may not entirely justify Cruella’s eventual bloodthirsty puppy pursuit, but at least she looks fabulous and acts outlandish in her origin story.  
4 stars
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson and Joel Fry

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