Emma Stone in Cruella (2021)
Among a mostly forgettable collection of Disney live-action films, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella leaves behind an extravagant mess of punk-rock eye candy and scheming power moves. It’s an endeavor in which those involved look to be having the time of their lives putting another spin on Cruella de Vil, one of the most famous characters and antagonist of author Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Based on Smith’s novel and written for the screen by Tony McNamara and Dana Fox, Cruella takes some twisty turns to give the villain a backstory. While marketed as Cruella’s origin story, Gillespie’s film is just getting started with her, scratching an edgy surface and teasing the early stages of how fashion designer Estella becomes a revenge-bent Cruella in one great monologue alone. It’s not necessarily a story that delves convincingly into the why of what she does, but it’s nonetheless a fun introduction to the pre-101 Dalmatians DeVil that leans a lot more into her rise in the fashion world than her relationship with dogs. Cruella embraces silliness every step of the way and the cast are totally on board, Emma Stone most fabulously of all in the titular role.
Set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, Estella (Emma Stone) sets out to make a name for herself as a top designer. Her days as a department store cleaner are swapped for couture work when her impromptu revamped window display one night catches the eye of fashion mogul Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) the next morning. It’s the best display the Baroness has seen from that store in 10 years, and she wants Estella’s splash of talent (and ideas) under her rigid watchful eye. Leading up to this meeting of the fashion minds, the story spends a lot of time on Estella’s childhood. The bloated, stuffy first chapter is where the 134-minute runtime of the film is felt the most. So many details about Estella’s character feel tacked on, conveniently put in place in order to fulfill her rebellious spirit and her path as an aspiring designer. A welcome little detail is the introduction of young Jasper and Horace, with whom young Estella finds solace after her mother’s sudden death. The trio start grifting to make a living, and their illegal activities evidently follow them into adulthood. But most of this early chapter is spent waiting in anticipation for Emma Stone, whose entrance promises more satisfying moments to come.
Once the film reaches Stone’s Estella and she starts working for House of Baroness Couture, the pacing is turned up several notches as both women vie to make a statement. Estella wants to work her way to the top of the fashion world. The completely self-absorbed Baroness, who knew Estella had a spunky flair from the moment she saw that window display, hired her for a reason: this is somebody who could potentially give her a run for her money, and what better way to assess the competition than bring her aboard the couture team? The Baroness shows she’s more than willing to steal designs and claim all the credit. Estella and the Baroness dance around each other’s intentions, until the former’s adulation of the latter comes crashing down after a personal revelation. The film strikes a great duality between the two characters, and creates a fun experience of anticipating how far they will go to outshine each other. Another interesting layer is added by echoing Estella’s past and showing how the Baroness fits in, which presents scenes from the beginning of the film in a new light.
The maddening shift in their dynamic sets off a course of events that sees Estella fully embrace Cruella, an alter-ego her mother once reminded her to keep hidden away or else she would cause trouble. Knowing that the Baroness would feel threatened by being upstaged, Estella unleashes Cruella as the distraction, and suddenly all eyes are on her. What ensues is a devilish battle of the Emmas as their characters get fashionable revenge on each other. Cruella’s avenging of a loved one and the Baroness’ refusal to co-exist with a competitor clash in entertaining ways. A lot of the fun comes from watching Emma Stone and Emma Thompson bounce off each other with witty and often scathing remarks. Stone is so committed to the absurdity of this character, and it’s clear she is having a ball. As the driving force of the film, she commands the screen. She relishes in playing a dual role of wanting to be the Estella her mother would want her to be, and unapologetically embracing the alter-ego that’s been inside all along. Stone completely holds her own acting opposite the great Emma Thompson, and the two of them together are a treat. Thompson plays the Baroness with such cold, devilish restraint that is unrelenting. Beyond the two Emmas, the casting of this film is a triumph for the most part. Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry play Horace and Jasper, known as Cruella’s henchmen, but both actors bring great layers to them so that they aren’t just stock caricatures. Kirby Howell-Baptiste plays Anita Darling, and unfortunately isn’t given much to do at all, apart from writing about and photographing Cruella in action. Given the mid-credits scene and the announcement of a sequel, there’s an opportunity to see more of Anita that should be explored.
So much of the story is told through glam-punk visuals, and the deVil is in the details with Cruella’s costumes. Legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan has absolutely outdone herself with the sheer ambition and care she poured into each creation on display. From Cruella’s fiery party-crashing gown to her jaw-dropping ‘garbage’ couture train, the costumes are like another character in the film. Each reveal of a new scene-stealing dress, particularly during the montage of Cruella upstaging a string of the Baroness’ events, commands the screen and becomes a far more resonating afterthought than what’s actually happening plot-wise. Beyond the titular character, the costumes are excellent across the board and give so much more weight to all the roles. Among the most memorable are Horace’s well-dressed chihuahua Wink, a total scene-stealer. Adding to the visuals is a pitch perfect soundtrack, theoretically. Sometimes the frequent use of songs, however great they are, is an overpowering distraction. One needle drop after another is a puzzling choice, especially given how great Nicholas Britell’s original score is. There’s a playful, punk-rock quality to his work that captures the mood so well and gets overshadowed.
As far as origin stories go, the mid-credits ending reinforces the feeling that Gillespie’s adaptation is just scratching the surface of who this version of Cruella is. The easter egg peaks interest by including Anita Darling, Roger (Kayvan Novak), and Cruella’s doorstep gift to them: Pongo and Perdita. Plus, a cute replica of Roger’s flat from the 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians is nostalgic as a fan. But there is a disconnect between the story that was just told and this mid-credits moment. Cruella’s monologue by the fountain comes close, but overall the backstory element leaves behind questions about the necessity of trying to explain her actions, especially when the film often leans into unleashing her character in a very brazen way. While the plot and pacing take a walk on the bland side, this glam-punk Cruella makes a statement brought to life by Emma Stone, who makes Craig Gillespie’s aspiring extravaganza worth relishing in.