Cruella tells the story of the titular villain (played by Emma Stone) back in her early days before she became the monstrous, despicable fashion icon/dog-killer we know today. Known formerly as Estella, we briefly follow her childhood in 1964 as she revels in her rebellious streak as she punches her way through school both physically and mentally. She has much spirit and determination but she is seen as disorderly and out of control. However, she is tempered with love and compassion thanks to her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) who sees the good in her.
But it is through a tragic event that spins Estella’s life out of control; leaving her to a life of destitute and poverty. However, not all is lost when she is taken in by two thieves Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) and the three thrive in a life of crime in order to survive. 10 years later, their schemes in heists have risen to a much larger scale. But Estella yearns for more in her life due to her immense passion in fashion.
Like in all stories, within every crisis lies a window of opportunity. And that opportunity lies in a career move that could take Estella to the top; alongside the likes of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the queen tigress of the fashion industry. But it is not going to be easy to climb up that mountain and Estella gradually becomes less and less inclined to play nice to get there.
Origin stories can be a bit of a mixed bag in terms of quality. That mark of quality heavily applies to characters who are quite villainous and disagreeable in nature. Because of the reliance and thrill of imagination, any concept explaining why characters are the way they are can be seen as quite detrimental. Not everything needs to be explained and a little ambiguity never hurt anyone, right?
However, in the case of Cruella, the talent both in front of and behind the camera does hint a lot of promise. We have two Oscar-winning actresses in the forefront with Stone and Thompson, three fellow Australian talents behind the camera (director Craig Gillespie, Oscar-nominated co-writer Tony McNamara and acclaimed production designer Fiona Crombie), the Oscar-winning costume designer Jenna Beavan and a titular role that is ripe for the plucking for any actress worth their mettle. Does the film live up to its promise?
The energy essentially starts at 11 and rarely ever lets up. Director Gillespie keeps the momentum chugging along quite nicely with plentiful use of long-takes, handheld camera movement and the liberal use of needle drops ranging from Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones, Time of the Season by The Zombies and even Fire by the Ohio Players. The momentum does reach a certain breaking point due to the long runtime (134 minutes) but the energy is infectious to feel when it lasts.
The weird ornamental touches are also amusing to spot like how the Baroness uses a razor, a dog wearing an eye-patch and of course the outstanding costume work from Beavan, which reflect the spirit of the ‘70s in both time and spirit.
The script (credited to McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, Dana Fox and Steve Zissis) keeps the backstory of Cruella in check with more than enough of a mean streak to keep her wicked and just enough of a heart (A fraction? A piece? A morsel?) so that we can understand her dual nature and not detriment what made her so well-known in the first place.
There are moments in the film that are so mean that it makes the drama stand out more and the humour more wicked; like in a confrontational scene between Stone and Thompson where a dramatic revelation is brushed aside as it is swiftly introduced It also helps that the film does not pour on the sentimentality or forced sympathy on the audience in order for them to engage with her predicament; it is simply a state of denial of her true nature and the film wrestles with that in an entertaining way.
The actors hold up on their end of the bargain; although some of the characterizations do need some work. Stone is an absolute delight as Cruella, laughing up a storm while enunciating her acidic dialogue with brimming glee. She never looks like she is grappling with the portrayal of Glenn Close’s iteration of the titular role and brings enough humanity to make the role her own. Thompson can play the barbed role of the Baroness in her sleep and she can still pull it off and she is a hoot and a half here; especially with her physical comedic chops that are both graceful and sharply timed. The interplay between the two Emmas is a real highlight here and well worth the price of admission alone.
The supporting cast are mostly good like Hauser donning a silly accent and ace timing as Horace; a charismatic Fry as Jasper and a jovial John McCrea as Artie. It is a bit of a shame that the dependable Mark Strong get underused as the Baroness’ valet John while Beecham only has a cameo. The worst goes to Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita “Tattletale” Darling, who plays the designated black friend role for Cruella. Howell-Baptiste is fine in the part but the characterization leaves a lot to be desired in both form and reasoning.
Much like the character herself, Cruella is exhilarating to witness in its unruly attitude. With a peppy soundtrack, enjoyably pantomime performances, a refreshingly mean streak and the stylistic excess through its production from costumes, sets and props; it is delectably good fun.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cruella is released in Australian cinemas today, and on Disney+ with Premier Access tomorrow (additional fee required).