Riding off the success of Maleficent a few years ago (not the second film though, which disappointed critics and fans), Disney are continuing their string of brave attempts at recreating much-loved animated films and with Cruella, delving into the past of a villain. It’s a mighty feat as it takes an iconic character and gives them a backstory – one which some are intrigued by and love, while others feel it detracts from the character’s legacy.
Maleficent for example, was good as its own entity, but stripped the titular character of all but a tiny bit of evil. You saw what motivated her to turn bad but essentially, she’s an anti-heroine in the film, given too much compassion for us to empathise with. We already liked her, but for being evil. We don’t need to try and like her for enacting revenge by doing bad things without baseless malicious intent. And don’t get me started on the second film, misleadingly titled The Mistress of Evil (after the original character’s alternate name “The Mistress of All Evil”) when this new Maleficent is portrayed as anything but. And certainly nothing more than a bad, vengeful bitchy witch at times.
However, Cruella not only reimagines One Hundred and One Dalmatians but its hugely successful 1996 live-action version as well, which is more where this film takes heed from. It looks at how and why she became a mad, fur-loving, fashion powerhouse who revelled in the joy of making others feel small and scared. Well, like Maleficent, her ultimate motive is again *sigh*, revenge. A wild child named “Estella” (Emma Stone) in the 60s who sees her mother die and blames herself, grows up on the street stealing to make ends meet but harbouring the desire to work in fashion, more specifically for her idol Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Through the twists and turns of the story, Estella eventually sheds her “bad girl trying to be tame” image and eventually embraces her alter ego “Cruella”. As Cruella her goal is to defeat the Baroness, both literally and in the avant-garde fashion world, and she does so underhandedly as Estella and boldly as Cruella.
The film’s tone is considerably darker for a Disney film, set against the backdrop of dreary, grey London in the 1960s and with plenty of the obvious monochrome motifs throughout. But when the scenes focus on the fashion and move forward to the crazy 70s, it’s awash with brash colours and eye-popping shapes. In addition to black and white, red of course features prominently too, worn by Cruella to focus our attention away from the Baroness just as those in the film are made to do.
Emma Thompson as the Baroness makes Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada look like a sweet, innocent young girl and while she is ruthlessly blunt and mean, her dry delivery of razor sharp-tongued rudeness and arrogance is humorously well-timed. And the film’s creators clearly took a lot of inspiration from the aforementioned film, which in turn was probably inspired by the 101 Dalmatians film starring Glenn Close.
And talking of Glenn Close, while her faultless portrayal of Cruella de Vil in that film cannot be surpassed, both Emmas certainly do their best to be the baddest. Emma Stone embraces the rebellious but vulnerable nature of young Estella as well as the ambitious with a slightly mean streak of an older Estella. Then her Cruella truly and proudly drinks in the angry, vengeful, power hungry, bossy, and attention-loving attitude she develops over time as her character learns the truth behind her existence as well as understands where her psychotic tendencies come from.
The only slight criticism I would offer is the insertion of CGI canines in place of real dogs in many of the scenes. Of course, in the context of the dogs doing some rather cartoony actions this seems necessary, but in comparison to the wonder of the live trained dogs used in the film’s predecessor, it almost felt like a cop-out and a waste of some of the massive $200 million budget (the same amount spent on the Mulan remake). And the CGI itself was hit and miss. There were times it was genuinely hard to tell if they had used real dogs but sometimes it was clear they hadn’t and it seemed like technology hadn’t advanced since the 2002 live-action Scooby-Doo film.
Further to the dogs – small spoiler alert here – the murderous mindset of Cruella is absent in this film. Not only does she not explicitly aim to kill her arch nemesis the Baroness, but what made the original Cruella, well, Cruella and one of the best Disney villains of all time – her obsessive desire to wear dead animal skins and fur and give zero fucks about the poor creatures she ordered to have killed – is glossed over and never addressed, only hinted at. Even some of her outfits raised questions of whether she was meant to be wearing anything made from an animal.
However, overall Cruella is a sharper and more stylised film that fans who grew up watching the original animated and live action films will surely love – in spite of the misgivings in giving Miss de Vil a heart. Sure, it was highly predictable that the cruel Cruella we all know and love would come from a place of heartbreak, hatred and the need for revenge, but it was a slick, dark, sometimes edgy (for Disney) production that at times didn’t even feel like a Disney film.
A highlight apart from the two Emmas’ marvellous performances was the soundtrack. In line with the decades it was set in, it features a variety of classic rock, punk, new wave, and soul tracks that ride the vibe of the film and Cruella – a unique-looking, rebellious, naughty and bad outsider making waves much like the music did at the time for their release.
Disney may have got it right this time and delivered the dog’s bollocks instead of something that turned out like the dog’s dinner, but I do hope they are cautious with a sequel. There have already been talks of wanting to do one akin to The Godfather II, serving as both a prequel and a sequel that could feature Glenn Close. Whether that’s just an idea that has floated around, who knows, but if it’s anything that tries to remake the 1996 film (the seeds for how that film starts was planted in a sneaky mid-credits scene), I will not be impressed.