Cruella (2021)

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara

In this era of IP driven entertainment, it seems we can’t buy an original movie anymore. Everything has to be this universe, or that franchise, or spin-off here and there and everywhere. If it doesn’t have some connection to a thing that made money previously, conglomerate entertainment companies can’t seem to see the monetary upside of a project. And look, I’m a big fan of a lot of IP projects that have come about in the last decade. Star Wars, Marvel, etc.; there is a lot of great content out there based on IP. But when it was announced that Disney would be producing a live action origin story for its One Hundred and One Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil, many, myself included, wondered whether it had gone too far. And let’s be honest, many people wondered that far before this film came about. But with the IP landscape in mind, the question remains whether an original story can still be told to a larger audience? I think with this film, the filmmakers have proved that yes, you just have to be able to do it within the construct of IP.

Estella (Emma Stone) is a young girl who loves fashion, but tragically sees her mother killed at a soiree. With nothing left but her dog, she flees to London, where she falls in with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), two other orphans who develop drifts to get by while staying in a dilapidated, vacant building. Flash forward and the trio are now young adults, still turning their tricks for money. But when pushed to pursue her passion, Estella gets a job at a store, where she turns the head of famed fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson). But with her newfound opportunity and success, Estella’s alter ego Cruella mysteriously begins to upstage The Baroness on the fashion scene.

So while this film is called Cruella, and indeed it takes place in some semblance in the same world as One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the story being told here is indeed more universal than that, and has little to do with that tie-in intellectual property. I can easily see how one could come out of this film disappointed, both in how little it pays homage to the original source material, and also in how unnecessary it is for this film is to exist in the first place. Both are valid arguments, but both are also points of view which fail to reckon directly with the text at hand, the film itself as realized by Dana Fox, Tony McNamara and Craig Gillespie. The story constructed here is extremely effective for a variety of reasons, most of all because it provides a unique perspective not only on the character, but the archetype that is Cruella de Vil. Emma Stone’s Cruella only remotely related to the one in the animated film, and this departure into telling a separate story saves the film from that unnecessary connection and loyalty to the orignal.

The film is stylish as hell, which perhaps should go without saying as a film essentially about fashion, but the art direction is really effective throughout, evoking both classic couture fashion and the 70s/80s punk street revolution. This is of course also aided by two tremendous central performances from Emma Stone as the anti-hero Cruella and Emma Thompson as The Baroness, who is something like a Devil Wears Prada Miranda-lite, the czarist fashionista establishment to Stone’s young new sensation. Paul Walter Hauser is also a riot as the comic relief sidekick Horace. The soundtrack is also a standout, and while some might be annoyed at the amount of “needle-drops” used throughout, the soundtrack effectively matches both the energy and the era of the film. But ultimately what makes this film as entertaining and successful as it ends up being is the screenplay, co-written by Tony McNamara, who wrote both The Favourite and The Great, which feel like obvious influences to the type of tone achieved in Cruella.

Going into the film, I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the run time was well over 2 hours at 134 minutes, but I was also not expecting the see a film which so delicately handles the gray area of villains, and indeed people in general. Cruella is a villain, but we also see a very likable side to her: driven, perhaps a little jilted by how her life has unfolded. Emma Stone is truly a great casting choice for this version of the character. But the film also deals with themes surrounding mental health issues and the idea of family, and handles them well in my opinion. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined liking a Cruella de Vil film as much as I ended up liking Cruella. Low expectations may account for some of the love I’m choosing to lap upon the film, but I also like to think that Gillespie, McNamara and Fox have decided to craft a film which just happens to check enough IP boxes for the Disney bigwigs to greenlight the project, while also allowing them to tell a touching, yet hugely entertaining story about an anti-hero. Unfortunately, not all IP can or will possibly live up to this level of success.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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