Disney‘s effort to turn animated features into live-action films has not only been hit-or-miss, but has run through an entire spectrum from near-line-for-line remakes to reinventions. With Cruella, Disney broadens things even further by taking on a prequel. It’s not just a prequel, but one that really needn’t connect with anything. Sure, Cruella’s (Emma Stone) “henchmen” are still named Jasper (Joel Fry – who is unlikely to be recognized for how quietly strong he is here) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she has the hair, but the connections largely end there… sort of.
The film has other connections though, most importantly that it reteams the writer (Tony McNamara), Production Designer (Fiona Crombie), and Emma Stone from The Favourite, and it could hardly show more. When it isn’t the dazzling sets of a ’70s fashion fever dream, it’s the crafty dialog that doesn’t miss a beat and is comfortable with the characters being the plot. All of it while Stone is fitting everything that made Abigail a brilliantly complex character into someone who is nevertheless tethered to a “cartoon” existence. Indeed, the two characters are not as distantly related as it might seem.
The film takes us to the very beginning, and introduces young “Estella,” who has little ability to control her emotions and/or “behave,” which she and her mother begin to refer to as “Cruella coming out.” In what feels like a montage sequence, but isn’t, events conspire to leave Estella feeling responsible for her mother’s death, and being taken in by two young thieves, Jasper and Horace, in London. Jump forward a decade and the crew has become very good at what they do to survive, but Estella longs for more and still dreams of being a fashion designer. The Baroness (Emma Thompson) has a stranglehold on the London fashion world, and before long Estella’s dreams will come true when she has the chance to get close to her. In time, Estella will get everything she thinks she wants, then her world will get destroyed, Cruella will come out, and it will, more or less, all happen again.
There are parties, schemes, pitfalls and pratfalls, falling-outs, apologies, and seemingly more dogs than there are. It’s delivered with not only a chaotic magic that feels gloriously “cartoony,” but a dedication to complications heaped upon complications that beggars the imagination. Whether it’s a 20-second shot that flies down through a ceiling and swirls its way through a store, or a scene of a heist falling apart and descending into pandemonium, it’s hard to conceive of the logistics involved in a director saying, “Nah, let’s do that again.”
The splendor’s the thing here, and this ultimately rather silly dance, but all of it in delightful service to giving a stage to a character as unlikely to ever get one as a homeless orphan is to turn London on its head. Cruella is legitimately mentally unwell and the roller coaster of hijinks and elaborate machinations doesn’t shy away from the fact at all. She’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and the fuel that makes her horrible is the solder that holds her genius together and keeps her the most human. She tries to “be Estella.” She tries to be “good.” For her mother. When the film truly comes together, in a way it only can because it’s actually earned it, she brilliantly realizes that is only a different madness.
Sure, it’s a gorgeous film that never misses a chance to inject fun, and it feels like we’ve mashed together a fashion-centric hallucination with a new installation at Disneyland, but giving that character an honest dissection is to enter another realm altogether. We might easily imagine that later character – her condition deteriorating, rich enough that no one can make her take her meds, and haunted by the memory of a truly life-altering experience involving a dalmatian coat. But now, much as The Favourite gave us a woman figuring out the arguably evil person she had to become, Cruella gives us a woman accepting the person she is, warts and all.