As the Walt Disney Company continues its take over of the entertainment business, their live-action movies are finally doing something a little different. For the past decade, most of Disney’s big productions are unoriginal remakes of the animated classics, but once in a while they make the untold origin story that no one was asking for but apparently needs to be seen.
This is the case with “Cruella,” the prequel to “101 Dalmatians” showing just how the infamous fashion designer who wants to skin Dalmatian puppies for a fur coat became so cruel. Even though no one was asking for it, this now-canon explanation has to be seen to be believed because it’s too cartoony to work even in the original 1961 animated movie.
Thankfully, the ridiculous and over-the-top screenplay is perfectly matched by the cast, especially its two leading ladies, who explode off the screen in such vile and love-to-hate caricatures of Cruella de Vil that they somehow make the story a thrilling joyride.
As dark as some of the original film’s plot points are — namely, killing puppies for fashion — both it and the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close are rated G and are appropriate for even the youngest viewers. But “Cruella” holds nothing back, getting everything it can out of its PG-13 rating and sending Disney into a new chapter of darker, more adult looks at what used to be family pictures for kids.
Set in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution, young grifter Estella (Emma Stone) is a clever and creative thief who’s determined to make a name for herself with her fashion designs. With her partners in crime who appreciate her appetite for mischief, they are able to build a life for themselves on the London streets.
One day, Estella's flair for fashion catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a fashion legend who is devastatingly chic and terrifyingly haute. Initially hired to be one of Baroness’ new designers, Estella quickly works her way up the fashion ladder.
But as the pair’s relationship develops, a secret from Estella’s past is revealed, setting in motion a course of events and revelations that will cause the young genius to embrace her wicked side and become the ruthless, fashionable and revenge-bent Cruella de Vil.
From its opening narration to the closing shot, this is the Emma Stone and Emma Thompson show, easily the two best elements that propel what would have been a disposable cash-grab to an outrageous, creative and visually stunning production. They are among the best actors of their generations for a reason, and they take command of every scene they're in, which makes the scenes they’re in together all the more enjoyable.
Blending a little bit of “Ocean’s 11,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Joker” into a tried-and-true Disney formula does bloat the runtime. It could have been a three-hour miniseries, but probably should have been 100 minutes tops. So at 2 hours 15 minutes, some scenes fly by when I could have watched 10 more minutes of it while others drag on 10 minutes too long.
Regardless of what is happening in the plot, the things you’re seeing and hearing will transport you back to the 1970s. As is often the case with Disney’s live-action productions, the sets, costumes and filmmaking are stunning and perfect for the era. Combine those visuals with a British pop/rock soundtrack of classics from the Rolling Stones, ELO, David Bowie and Queen, it’s about as 1970s London as you can get.
If only the poor choices weren’t impossible to ignore. Because it’s in the opening 15 minute prologue, I feel no shame sharing that Estella’s mom is killed by the Baroness’ Dalmatians by knocking her off a cliff. All the plot points surrounding that inciting incident and those that follow just keep getting crazier, made all the more ridiculous by the use of CGI dogs 75% of the time, and the CGI is not good.
And yet, those weird choices fit for this film, as poorly conceived and bizarrely mishmashed as it is. Because if you’re going to explore the psychotic psyche of Cruella de Vil, the whole thing has to match her insanity, and that’s where this production thrives, for better or worse.