Writers: Dana Fox and Tony McNamara (screenplay by); Aline Brosh McKenna and Kelly Marcel & Steve Zissis (story by); Dodie Smith (based upon the novel “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” by)
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Cruella de Vil doesn’t seem like a character with a lot of depth. The villain, first seen in Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, then immortalized five years later in Disney’s animated adaptation of that story, always seemed one-dimensional in her desire to skin Dalmatians and turn them into a coat. Even her name is a thinly-veiled combination of “cruel” and “devil.” There was nothing about her in the original story that suggested she was complex or misunderstood.
So while part of me questions the wisdom of developing and humanizing such a cartoonishly-evil antagonist, I have to applaud the writing team behind Cruella for their creativity in penning this reimagined origin story.
In this version, Cruella (Emma Stone) is born Estella, an ambitious, but rambunctious youth with salt and pepper hair who dreams of becoming a designer. Fate leaves her orphaned on the streets of London with two other street urchins, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). The trio cons and cheats others to get by, but Estella strives for a better life.
With the help of Jasper and Horace, Estella lands a job working for The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the most popular designer in all of 1970s London. While it briefly seems like she may find satisfaction as The Baroness’ protege, fate conspires to bring her inner Cruella to the surface and she begins making headlines for her bold fashion choices, which enrages a jealous Baroness.
Using London’s punk scene as the backdrop of the film is a stroke of genius. It makes total sense to flesh out Cruella as a Vivienne Westwood-esque fashion icon. And it allows the costume and set designers to have a lot of fun imagining the colorful world these characters inhabit. (It was also very fun to see all the ways they sneak black and white Dalmatian style polka dots into the background, starting with the black marks young Estella’s headmaster uses to denote her bad behavior.)
The soundtrack also takes full advantage of the 70s setting. The entire film is filled with great needle drops – some predictable and on-the-nose, others more obscure – including Ike & Tina Turner’s version of “Whole Lotta Love,” The Doors “Five to One,” The Ohio Players’ “Fire,” Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy” and a live cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” performed by John McCrea.
The film is beautifully shot with kinetic camera work driven by the pop score. The lush world created by director Craig Gillespie is highly stylized. It more closely resembles recent comic book films like Birds of Prey than either the 1961 animated or 1996 live-action versions of 101 Dalmatians.
The plot mostly works, but it does require a “Superman/Clark Kent” level of disbelief to accept that no one in London is able to piece together that salt-and-pepper style icon Cruella’s is secretly bespectacled ginger fashion designer Estella.
The story also seems a little too clever for its own good. It feels like there are one too many plot twists and the writers are at times too heavy handed in their nods to the source material. However, the story feels satisfying overall and it all leads to a flashy and fun climax.
Emma Stone is great in the lead role. As anyone who has seen The Favourite already knows, she excels at playing low status characters who con their way into power. Emma Thompson is also fantastic as the Baroness, which she charismatically plays without a trace of empathy or compassion. Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and John McCrea are all wonderful in their supporting roles, as well.
I’m still not entirely sure we needed a live-action Cruella origin story, but since we did get one, I’m glad this is the story we got. It’s stylized and fun and filled with great music and big performances. And, as the film’s final needle drop pleads, it might just give you a little “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.