It’s not too often that a Disney live-action adaptation of an animated classic turns out to be an unexpected delight. While some went about retelling the story beat for beat with extra runtime padding or explore the story from a different perspective, “Cruella” takes a different approach by presenting us a sympathetic story about Disney’s most fashionably chic villain, but with a deliciously dark punk rock twist. With its fashionably good costumes, makeup, hair, and cast embracing the film’s wild energy, “Cruella” turns out to be the best kind of surprise film of the summer.
“Cruella” isn’t another one of those derivative live-action adaptations of a Disney classic not because it explores the titular character’s origins, but because it is willing to give us a story that helps us sympathize with her and understand her motivations. Emma Stone slays the role as the title character with confidence and fun. And she looks wicked good doing it in rebellious fashion from costume designer Jenny Beavan and hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey. One could argue that the costumes, hair, and makeup are just as much a part of the cast as the humans and the dogs.
The film opens with Cruella recounting how she was born to make a statement. Something that not everyone appreciated. She saw the world differently than anyone else and refused to conform to any social norms or fashion patterns. And she would earn the title name by telling that her mother’s doll’s dresses were ugly. But this wasn’t simply Estella being a challenging person, but Estella challenging the world.
Young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is someone who is well ahead of her time. While her mother is only doing right by her, Estella’s rebellious nature gets her into a bit of trouble. Even at school, her mother tries to encourage Estella to suppress her Cruella persona. Having that combination of confidence and kindness may not have been a thing back in 1964, but Estella was going to be sure to make it trendy, even if that meant her being picked on by the boys and school principal.
Eventually, Estella and her mother leave their rural home start a new life in England. But before they can move, Estella’s mother requests a meeting with The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a cold and ruthless fashion designer. There Estella gets her first sight of the fashion world. She may not have understood what she was seeing, but fate drew her there, and she knew that she was going to be a part of it. But fate had other plans for her mother, as the Baroness called upon a trio of loyal Dalmatians to sic Estella’s mother and force her off a ledge.
Initially blaming herself, Estella runs off, leaving a family heirloom behind, to England. There she joins Jasper and Horace, two orphan vagrants pickpocketing locals. Though the three made a successful living on the art of the grift, a now older Estella (Stone) wants more out of life. So, with the help of Jasper (Joel Fry), she comes the latest employee of one of the Baroness’ shops, albeit it is a lowly janitorial job. Still, she is ever so persistent despite her boss’s constant putdown. Unable to tolerate it, Estella goes on a bender and alters one of the window models to reflect all that anger and frustration.
The result is a stunning piece of work that catches the eye of the Baroness, who hires her almost immediately. But as quickly as her dreams are coming true, she finds out the devastating truth that the Baroness had something to do with her mother’s death, and claimed her family’s heirloom. Along with the help of Jasper and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), along with their fellow dogs Buddy and Wink, Cruella hatches a scheme that will enact her revenge.
For a long time, Estella has been a confident, ferocious, and outspoken individual with a tenacity. Her mother’s request to suppress that behavior came from a place of love so that she can be protected. But one doesn’t hide such behavior. As a narrating Cruella puts it, “I am woman. Hear me roar.” And that mantra stays true throughout many of Cruella’s appearances during many of the Baroness’ events.
Stone looks like is having an absolute blast playing as the character with a high level of confidence and embraces the complexities of her character. The black and white duality of Estella and Cruella’s personality are juxtaposed by the character’s colorful drive for revenge. The film illustrates both sides to the one character whose trauma drives her ambition and quest for revenge. As Estella, she is the softer, somewhat meek version, whose strength is her humanity. On the flip side to it, Cruella is the opposite, a darker and fiercer version who can do things Estella cannot do but lacks the human element.
The thing that works about Cruella is that it moves along that grey area between someone we can root for and someone we can despise. There’s no doubt that because Cruella’s animated counterpart has a villainous reputation, it would be difficult to root for the live-action character. But Gillespie gives us a character that we can sympathize with by showing her tragic backstory and a difficult upbringing, which makes form a more gripping character arc.
The soundtrack also functions as a supplemental piece of storytelling to help shape the emotions and character’s arcs. These aren’t just easy picks that fit into the setting or cue up a scene, but rather as a tool to help develop the character and move the story forward while also sounding groovy. What’s more, Gillespie shows a great deal of restraint by not going with some of the more obvious choices but rather adding in those deep cuts that celebrate London and female empowerment. The latter of which really shines through as Estella goes on a bender to transform one of Baroness’ windows in her image to the tune of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” while the Baroness makes a powerful entrance into her store to the tune of the Doors’ “Five to One.”
Thompson’s Baroness is an excellent foil to Stone’s character(s), as she is an unbearably demanding boss who steals her employee’s fashionably artistic genius and claims it for herself. And emasculates any underling not worth her attention or time. However, she is easily threatened by any “stunningly dressed women who pull the focus off her.” Thus Estella weaponizes her Cruella persona and uses it against The Baroness. As such, Stone has to switch back and forth between the two, one to surveil her nemesis and the other to wreak havoc and cause chaos, all in the name of revenge.
Though the film pretty much belongs to Stone, a lot can be said for how Fry and Hauser, along with their canine companions Buddy and Wink, steal the film. The chemistry between all three is heartwarming and a bit mischievous as they aren’t just friends. They are family. Though Horace may have a one-track mind, thinking that there is an angle to steal everything, he has a heart of gold. Jasper acts as the trio’s moral compass and offers a helping hand in times of need. And then there’s the absolutely fabulous John McCrea who channels David Bowie energy into Artie, a fashion genius who joins Cruella’s entourage later in the film.
And because there is such a strong emphasis on using fashion to make a statement and weaponize it, the look of the costumes, along with the hair and makeup, have to match its boldness and ferocity. With Academy Award-winner Jenny Beaven at the helm in that department, it accomplishes that goal by giving each of the dresses a punk rock vibe with a touch of Disney magic. Each of Cruella’s dresses evolves with the title character as the arc develops throughout the film.
When we first meet Cruella, she makes a ravishing introduction by setting a white cloak ablaze to reveal a stunning red dress that catches the attention of the Baroness. And as the war between the two rages on, Cruella’s event crashing and scene-stealing dresses grow bolder and more daring. Yes, Beaven’s costumes are as much a character as the humans and dogs themselves. There is an undeniable personality to them all, with each one of them having a distinctive design that says, look at me and hear me roar. And the one dress that roars the loudest is made up of garbage fabric and newspaper clippings, which has a forty-foot train attached.
With a killer style, punk rock energy, an eclectic soundtrack, and a fun cast, “Cruella” turns out to be one of the edgier Disney live-action films inspired by one of their animated classics. A lot of the fun from this high-fashion mad caper flick comes from Cruella exploring the grey area of a world of black and white and emphasizing with the choices (and chaos) that she makes. Honestly, it’s almost hard to believe that this is a Disney film, considering how dark it is and what characters get away with. But in the end, it’s to the film’s benefit because it makes “Cruella” one of the best surprises of the summer.
Cruella is in theaters May 28, 2021