NOTE: “Cruella” is available to watch in theatres here in North America, and many other parts of the world, wherever theatres are permitted to be open. It is also available to watch at home on Disney+, via a one-time, “Premier Access” fee for the next several months, before becoming free to view at home for all Disney+ subscribers later this year. When possible, we recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic without a full COVID-19 vaccination however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Cruella” is based on an at-home viewing via Disney+ Premier Access.
Cruella de Vil. Cruella de Vil. If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will! Or so that catchy 1960’s song goes anyway. But is that really the whole story behind one of the most iconic Disney villains? You no doubt experienced some unwelcome flashbacks to Maleficent and its sequel after hearing that rhetorical question, a duology of movies that took a highly beloved, perfectly irredeemable Disney villain, and claimed that she was simply a misunderstood victim the whole time. No one bought it, commercial success be damned, and the idea that Disney would attempt the same failed experiment with Cruella de Vil feels initially baffling.
What can the studio do though? Cruella’s 1961 Disney classic, 101 Dalmatians already got a live-action remake in 1996, one that even got its own sequel, 102 Dalmatians, in 2000. 101 Dalmatians was doing live-action remakes before Disney even launched that bandwagon! So, rather than remake the remake, Disney instead opted to revisit its contested concept from the Maleficent movies, resulting in the birth of a loose prequel movie to 101 Dalmatians, Cruella, one that naturally thrusts its eponymous villain into a protagonist role. Cue the dredging up of another supposedly misunderstood Disney baddie that was wronged by society, and supposedly had her reasons for the deranged agenda she sported within the animated classic (and its equally classic live-action remake, in this case!) that spawned her.
But wait! Cruella sports a PG-13 rating, which might as well be an R-rating by mainline Disney standards! It also doesn’t focus on its titular character being redeemable. She admits from the jump that she was born wicked, and has no interest in conforming to the standards of civilized society. Cruella reframes the tragedy initially botched by Maleficent and its sequel, not because its character is a misunderstood, misguided anti-hero, but because Cruella’s own evolving desires to get rich, get recognized and get even inevitably push her on the path to becoming the unhinged lunatic that she is in 101 Dalmatians. Rather than defy the image of Cruella de Vil, Cruella leans into it, and that immediately makes it a noticeable improvement over the Maleficent movies. In fact, Cruella manages to be a pretty fun movie in general, when it manages to keep its eye on the ball anyway.
Yes, for all that it does right, Cruella can be a bit messy at times, not unlike its central Disney villain. It spreads itself across more genres than arguably necessary, and its token efforts to tie into the future events of 101 Dalmatians are pretty, ahem, spotty, if you’ll excuse the pun. This prequel is full of flash and bravado, but Cruella still can’t fully break away from the demands of its Disney heritage, even if it stands a lot more confidently as a villain piece than the Maleficent movies did. Nevertheless, Cruella is definitely one of the better live-action re-imaginings to come out of Disney in recent years. If you can put up with its kitchen sink approach, it’s an edgy delight about powerful women behaving badly, standing as overdue proof that Disney villains can in fact thrive in a protagonist role, under the right circumstances.
Cruella chronicles the formative years of Estella Miller, the young woman who would one day evolve into the uber-fashionable, puppy-hunting, fur-worshipping maniac, Cruella de Vil. Beginning in the 1960’s, Estella grows up at an upscale British school under the care of her mother, Catherine Miller, where Estella is frequently tormented over her iconic, natural-born half-white, half-black hair. Despite making a friend in Anita Darling, a familiar character from 101 Dalmatians (this explains how in the world Anita and Cruella could have gone to primary school together, as established in that original movie), tragedy eventually strikes, and Estella is orphaned, because of course she is. This is a Disney movie. Mothers don’t survive long in these parts.
Fast-forward to the 1970’s, and Estella has shacked up with two thieving orphans, Jasper and Horace Badun, her familiar henchmen from 101 Dalmatians. Jasper and Horace eventually present Estella with the opportunity to work at a fashionable department store in London, something that puts her on the radar of Britain’s fashion queenpin, Baroness von Hellman. After the Baroness takes Estella onto her own payroll, dark secrets end up exposed, and a collision course between two fashion geniuses eventually erupts into a full-blown war of British headlines, one that naturally spurs the evolution of Estella into her familiar Disney villain personality, Cruella.
That’s a bit of a walk, isn’t it? The journey to Estella’s evolution from rebellious student to desperate pickpocket to lowly department store worker to fashion assistant to, well, Cruella de Vil, is definitely not boring though. Some of this is due to director, Craig Gillespie’s impeccable mischievous energy for sure, but a huge amount of why Cruella works also comes squarely from the over-the-top performances delivered by Emma Stone and Emma Thompson in the lead protagonist and antagonist role, respectively. Both Stone and Thompson go full tilt with their characters, effortlessly grabbing audience attention, while also preventing Cruella from becoming too starkly grounded, when it ideally thrives as a colourful character piece that’s mostly presented in good fun.
Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, the latter of whom is immediately reuniting with director, Gillespie after they worked together on Gillespie’s previous movie, I, Tonya, are also standouts as Jasper and Horace, respectively. Their double act should be familiar, with Fry’s Jasper being the savvy brains behind their criminal operation (albeit one that still defers frequently to Estella/Cruella), while Horace is a bumbling comic relief character with a ravenous appetite, and a humourously efficient bond with his unusually intelligent one-eyed chihuahua, Wink. Cruella provides more depth and examination behind how Estella/Cruella, Jasper and Horace function as something of an outlaw family unit though, impressively managing to do so without undermining Estella’s appeal as a budding villain.
The stubborn necessity of having to tie Cruella in with 101 Dalmatians also means that 101 Dalmatians protagonists, Roger Dearly and Anita Darling play a role in this movie’s storyline, but they’re both ultimately background characters and little else. In fact, the semi-forced presence of Roger and Anita sometimes feels downright intrusive here, existing as little more than transparent sequel bait for a Cruella follow-up that, in fairness, has already been greenlit by Disney. Roger and Anita do make some small contributions to Cruella’s plot, but they’re both firmly overshadowed by the ever-growing animosity between Estella/Cruella and the Baroness. Even Mark Strong is given disappointingly little to do as the Baroness’ valet and right-hand man, John, on this note, a character that’s basically only around to deliver Cruella’s big, inevitable third-act twist.
Perhaps it’s wise that Cruella keeps most of its focus on the core rivalry that viewers would no doubt be coming to see most though, even if said rivalry doesn’t even factor into the story at all during the first act. Regardless, Stone and Thompson are clearly having a great time constantly trying to top each other in their respective performances, and their antagonistic chemistry really is superb. The Baroness may undeniably be the more evil of these two characters, amazingly, but she plays a crucial role in Estella’s development into Cruella. The best part as well is that, rather than emphasize the tragedy behind this bitter rivalry, Estella’s villainous downturn that’s catalyzed by the Baroness feels more like a series of triumphs than a true failure of character. For better or worse, Estella was always meant to be Cruella de Vil, and unlike the Maleficent movies, it’s great that this character isn’t inexplicably apologizing for who and what she is.
Cruella clearly set out with no shortage of ideas. That’s not such a bad thing in concept, because it means this movie has got a lot more inspiration than your run-of-the-mill live-action Disney re-imagining. Still, it’s possible that Cruella might have had too many ideas when it comes to its plotting. Its story structure is a mess, its dialogue can be frequently contrived and ridiculous, and it stretches itself across so many genres that the movie’s core identity starts to become a little muddled. It’s still entertaining, but the way the script is presented in Cruella makes it feel unevenly cooked, featuring some scenes that positively soar with deranged charm, while others feel too forced and flat to leave an impact.
As I mentioned, once Cruella finally gets to establishing Estella’s proper rivalry with the Baroness, it tends to land more consistently. Outside of that however, Cruella’s drama can be scattershot, and its humour sometimes feels a bit juvenile, despite the fact that this is one of the rare mainline Disney movies to sport a PG-13 rating. Fortunately, when a joke doesn’t work, or a scene doesn’t land, Cruella tends to quickly follow it up with another quirky distraction, so it’s not the kind of movie to get stuck in a bad gear. Even so, it can be a little hard to get a handle on exactly what Cruella is trying to say sometimes, as much as it also makes a commendable commitment to embracing some surprisingly charming villainy.
Cruella is directed by Craig Gillespie, who recently made something of a splash with his previous cinematic effort, 2017’s biopic, I, Tonya. Cruella channels a huge chunk of that infectiously wicked flavour that was presented in I, Tonya as well, complete with Cruella’s own voiceover interjecting her lovably twisted perspective on events every so often, Tonya Harding-style. Considering Gillespie’s success with examining a controversial woman from real life, he feels like a smart fit for Cruella overall, surprisingly managing to wrangle a chaotic script into something more cohesive and engaging than you would imagine.
Even Gillespie’s colourful, entertaining direction can’t fix every issue with Cruella’s somewhat confused storytelling though. There are some scenes that Gillespie is helpless to wring any worthwhile energy from, especially when he’s saddled with the thankless duty of connecting Cruella to 101 Dalmatians. This feels like a Disney mandate more than anything else, and you can definitely see when Gillespie has been reined in by the studio. Fortunately, Gillespie’s direction still manages to hit more often than miss though, especially when it can go all in on the increasingly vicious, catty battle between Cruella and Baroness von Hellman.
When Gillespie is truly able to dig into Cruella’s familiar and new personalities uninhibited, he effortlessly elevates the material. Even plot elements that don’t always feel like they go together, such as Cruella’s surrogate family drama with Jasper and Horace, Cruella trying to make it in the fashion world as a misunderstood genius, and no shortage of goofy, Disney-approved heists and general mischief, manage to find a certain flow, as gleefully unpredictable as Cruella herself. If Gillespie wasn’t saddled with the extensive demands of a high-profile Disney license, he probably could have made a true work of deranged genius here. I definitely don’t mind settling for a better-than-average Disney re-imagining that actually manages to mostly work its villainous angle though.
Special mention should definitely be made for Cruella’s soundtrack, composed by Nicholas Britell. Britell is not one of the better-known composers in Hollywood, being primarily known for providing the music of independent and/or Oscar-targeting movies such as The Big Short, Vice, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Battle of the Sexes, itself another Emma Stone vehicle. Cruella is definitely an odd addition to Britell’s resume as a composer, but he nonetheless rises to the occasion with aplomb, presenting a soundtrack for this Disney blockbuster that’s mischievous, subversive and full of awesome period flavour.
That latter point must especially be emphasized, because Cruella is a bona fide smorgasbord of classic pop/rock favourites from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Fantastic musical offerings such as, “She’s a Rainbow” by The Rolling Stones, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” by Nancy Sinatra, “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, ” “Smile” by Judy Garland (that one in particular is ironic, considering that Cruella has been frequently compared to Warner Bros.’ own recent villain prequel movie, Joker, which prominently marketed itself with the same song), “The Wizard” by Black Sabbath, and many others are all exceptionally layered into Cruella’s pivotal scenes. Fans of oldies music from these eras are going to be thrilled with how effectively Cruella utilizes period songs, to the point where Cruella’s licensed song list could easily function as an ideal playlist for retro music lovers.
Considering that this is a mainline Disney blockbuster however, it’s predictable that Cruella would pack in its own tie-in single. That comes in the form of, “Call Me Cruella” by Florence and the Machine. This song is itself a loose reinvention of the, “Cruella de Vil” song sung by Roger Dearly in the original 101 Dalmatians movie from 1961, one instead sung from the perspective of Cruella herself, seemingly chronicling her own descent into madness and villainy. It’s actually not a bad song, though it is remarkably short, clocking in at just over two minutes long. “Call Me Cruella” is a surprisingly edgy and fairly memorable Disney song while it lasts though. It doesn’t enormously stand out, but it’s inoffensive and kind of fun, even if it’s also completely trounced by the composition and retro music flair that defines the bulk of Cruella’s soundtrack.
Cruella may be a bit messy at times, but this manages to work astonishingly well with its eponymous Disney villain-in-the-making. The consistency is a little wanting, and the thesis over exactly what makes Cruella de Vil tick can sometimes be a little confusing, but Cruella is proud to present an irredeemable main character, and make her look appropriately wicked, without also making her unlikable. If you can put up with the wild mix of genres, directions and generally unpredictable origin elements for one of Disney’s most iconic antagonists, Cruella is great fun, nicely appealing to Disney adults more than Disney children.
Of course, Disney being Disney, Cruella is still being positioned as a dubious franchise starter, one that predictably falters when it comes to having to try and lay the groundwork for 101 Dalmatians, an established story that it was better off not having any concrete connection to. Cruella de Vil is a fascinating enough character in her early years to stand on her own, without the need to establish Roger and Anita as transparent sequel bait, and without Cruella already leaping to her magnum opus of a Dalmatian coat. Said future Cruella agenda is even given some positively eye-rolling references in this prequel to boot, despite Cruella herself never once uttering in earnest that she wants to make a Dalmatian coat. To offer any further insight would constitute spoilers, but rest assured that Cruella is not yet mad enough for the unethical fur hunt that would eventually define her as a Disney villain, and that’s actually ideal in this case.
Cruella doesn’t need 101 Dalmatians to succeed, and that’s perhaps the biggest endorsement of it as a surprisingly enjoyable villain piece. It’s all over the map at times, but it also proves that Cruella de Vil’s mad genius goes well beyond a Dalmatian coat. Better still is that Cruella doesn’t need your pity, or your concern. She doesn’t need to be understood in the name of some foolish redemption in this case. All that needs to be understood is that she’s never to be underestimated.
- Stone's and Thompson's wicked performances
- Mischievous direction that proudly embraces Cruella's villainy
- Fantastic soundtrack that's loaded with 60's/70's hits
- Storytelling can be messy and inconsistent
- 101 Dalmatians connections feel unnecessary