It’s somewhere In the third act that CRUELLA goes from being a frothy Disney confection to a Guy Ritchie knock off. Until then, this origin story about the woman who wanted to turn 101 dalmatians into outer wear is pure eye candy with a villainess more deliciously reprehensible than Cruella herself, and even more overdressed.
This Cruella (Emma Stone) starts out as Estella, an acerbic, determined girl, born with the distinctive black-and-white hair, who has dreams of being a fashion designer. She has the talent, but she also has an alter ego named Cruella who is the bane of her single mother’s (Emily Beecham) existence. Though she tries to be the sweet and compliant child her adored mother wants her to be, the piebald child collects too many literal blotches on her primary school’s official record and celebrates 1964 with a parting of the scholastic ways. Immediately, Mum packs them up from their scenic English village to the excitement, and opportunities, of London. Unfortunately, the stop they make on the way at a tony society fashion show in a castle leads to the untimely demise of Estella’s mum (this is a Disney film, after all), and the child finds herself alone on the streets of London, where she falls in with dim teddy bear Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and sharp, but big-hearted Jasper (Joel Fry), thieves her own age. Also, the comic relief to the more general comedy as they become a sort of Greek chorus to Estella’s adventures, and later the willing henchmen to Cruella’s machinations. Together they form a family unit as they live by their wits in an abandoned warehouse, concocting grifts almost as elaborate as the disguises Estella whips up for them on her trusty sewing machine.
But Estella still dreams of being a more traditional fashion designer, and as the 1970s arrive, Jasper arranges for her to work at Liberty of London, the most exclusive store in in that city. It’s a favor that will give Estella everything she wants, while also spurring her for vengeance. Those both center on the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the hottest designer in the world, and through a series of convenient coincidences, Estella’s mentor. Not the warm and fuzzy kind of mentor, but rather the kind of mentor that demands her luncheon cucumber be cut to a specific width, and then steals your designs while imperiously letting you know what a favor she is doing you. For Estella, that’s no problem. She even manages to be the sweet and compliant girl her mother dreamed she could be in order to stay in The Baroness’ employ. That comes to a grinding halt when the starry-eyed Estella spies her mother’s long-lost necklace around the Baroness’ neck and discovers the history between them that ended so badly. This renders Estella toadying sycophant in a red wig by day, and by night, Cruella, the punk-rock fashionista that will take the London fashion world by storm while plotting to destroy the Baroness both personally and professionally.
Over the top doesn’t begin to describe what is going on here. It’s a fresh-faced Grand Guignol. Starting with the Baroness decked out in retro-future designs with accompanying coifs that defy logic as nimbly as they do gravity. Thompson, outacts the formidable couture with an icy narcissism that bespeaks a weariness at having to deal with a world of inferiors. And she may have a point. The writers have added a scene in which she is not merely arrogantly cut-throat, she’s a genius when it comes to running a business. Hence, when each event the Baroness throws is upstaged by an upstart with moxie, talent, and a dazzling sense of showmanship, it’s a schadenfreude delight for us and a rousing victory for Cruella. As are Cruella’s designs in all their outré glory, presented with sound and light shows, or with Cruella in her latest creation rolling out of a dump truck to the thunderous acclaim of her fans as the Baroness can only look on in frozen horror.
The action, devious, intricate, and occasionally slapstick, is slickly edited and played for the sorts of laughs a small dog dressed as an oversized rat should induce, or the more refined chuckle of the flinty subtexts of Estella’s dialogue with the Baroness once the former’s fiendish plan begins. Stone slips into each persona a surely and easily as Estella/Cruella does her wig. There is a finely calibrated element of camp to the performance, in keeping with the higher camp idiom of the whole, and when she drops it for that third act, that’s when the magic dims.
In CRUELLA, woman and film, we have a self-delighted anti-Disney princess that wears her darkness with blithe impudence. It’s not just refreshing, it’s a new standard for fairy tale princesses done up in a flight of giddy fantasy with the standard lashings of Disney sentimentality. Gaudy and rambunctious, it soars before it commits the cardinal sin of taking itself seriously.