I’ve spent the entire series of Disney’s Cruella torn between joy and horror. Rarely has a movie brought me to life as neatly emotionally as this one about a villain best known for puppies want to skin to make a coat. Nothing but Cruella is actually not about that character. It’s not about her war with the fur industry or PETA. It is certainly not a collection of Dalmatian dogs on the run from her fur cravings. It’s a colorful and meaty tale of a woman with profound narcissistic tendencies who takes revenge on a murderer and becomes a London fashion icon. I’m sorry if you ever thought, “I could never have anything but camp-fueled affection for Disney’s puppy killer,” because this chick is a delight.
This is more Wicked than Joker in the sense that it re-imagines a notorious villain as a misunderstood hero tainted by popular media. Still I have no idea why it is a film about Cruella de Vil and not just an original film about a woman with profound narcissistic tendencies who take revenge on a murderer and become a London fashion icon. True Wicked (both the book and the musical) does everything in its power to investigate how media can corrupt an image, Cruella largely bypasses jibes about populism or media to just put on a big fantastic show.
Plus, aside from the occasional cameo from Roger (played by a wonderfully schluppy-looking Kayvan Novak), Anita (a stubborn but crafty Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and some black and white spotted pups, Cruella has nothing to do with the source material. Wicked at least got us to the natural ending of the story after building his hero. I’m not saying I had to watch Emma Stone skin 101 puppies, but then at least the focus on Cruella would have made sense.
At every break in the movie, I tried to figure out exactly why Cruella exists, no matter how entertaining it is. A colleague jokingly told me he thinks it was created because Disney turned it into digital dog tech Lady and the Tramp and wanted to get the most out of it. To its credit, there are a lot of dogs running between Emma Stone’s legs and jumping over her and being generally cute Cruella. There are even a few Dalmatians! They all look realistic and cuddly until the creepy valley occasionally catches them in its mouth and you are reminded that these are some very fake dogs.
And even like this movie used to be lit green as a way to recoup the money spent to pre-produce the technology Lady and the Tramp, it still means that there used to be a pair of Disney execs sitting in their office, legs on the desk, tasteful Mickey Mouse logo socks sticking out between expensive pants and more expensive shoes, and looked at this field and said, “Let’s be sure. take a look at the story of that villain who really has no replaceable quality aside from her taste in cars as a misunderstood anti-social heroine just to fix some real injustices in the world.
At no point does the film attempt to explain – or even hint – how Cruella would turn from a fashion icon with a very deeply buried heart of gold into a monster forcing her friends to kidnap puppies from another friend. and make a jacket. It starts with Cruella, then named Estella, going to school, causing trouble and falling in love with her exceptionally nice mother. After a murder for which Cruella blames herself, she flees the streets of London to meet two young thieves, Jasper and Horace. She dyes her recognizable hair and joins them in their robbery and the three become a family.
But as much as Estella loves crime, it is her true passion fashion.
Then we blast forward 10 years to an otherworldly version of 1970s London. Estella’s adoptive brothers (Joel Fry gives Jasper heart, even if Paul Walter Hauser likes to play Horace as a cartoon) get her a job at a luxury store hoping that she will amaze them with her skills as a designer and seamstress. And while enraging her bosses, she catches the attention of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), London’s greatest and most powerful designer. Estella is then torn between a desire to prove herself to the Baroness and to destroy the Baroness, and the film quickly becomes scene after scene of guerrilla fashion shows, framed as the most gorgeous-looking robberies you’ve ever seen.
Cruella borders on camp with the way it jumps between absurdity and melodrama – often in the same scene. I wondered if I was stoned when Cruella was racing around London in a dump truck after she accused a one-eyed Chihuahua of a jailbreak. Not because it was dumb (it was!) But because it was played deadly seriously. Stone and Thompson anchor the whole affair with cartoonish characters treated with the gravitas of historical figures. They don’t wink at the camera. They don’t make sly referential jokes about the story material. They just go to war with flaming dresses and glittering moth cocoons and the occasional dog whistle.
You usually know when to laugh and when to just have fun watching a movie, but I found myself constantly torn by Cruella. It’s like a fairytale, and it’s like a really good graphic novel, and it’s unlike any movie it will be compared to.
Cruella premieres on Disney Plus Friday, May 28.