There is certainly no better-named villain in all children’s literature than Cruella de Vil. She trumps Roald Dahl’s Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – and maybe even Lord Voldemort.
So it’s a surprise that it’s taken so far for the iconic plague of Dalmatians to have a movie all to itself.
Well, Disney’s new title, Cruella, certainly makes up for lost time. It’s fun, albeit a little long, and Emma Stone, a hoot three years ago in The Favorite, gets to wrap her lips around a series of terrifying English vowels once again as the devious intriguer de Vil whose ambition has everything in his path devours.
It’s been 25 years since Glenn Close starred in 101 Dalmatians, the first live-action adaptation of Dodie Smith’s children’s book first animated by Disney in 1961.
Emma Thompson in Walt Disney Studios’ new movie Cruella (2021)
This movie is sort of a prequel that shows us how a girl originally named Estella acquires her wickedness and changes her name.
Of course, sensibilities have changed since 1996, and Cruella’s desire to turn Dalmatians into fur coats – inspired by a factual comment that made one of Dodie Smith’s friends merry about her beloved pet Pongo – is duly toned down in this movie.
You can almost smell the fear Disney executives must have felt about the alarming prospect of infuriating animal rights activists.
Instead, the writers and director Craig Gillespie (whose last film I, Tonya was also about a vengeful anti-heroine) try to make their lead character vaguely sympathetic and her motivations understandable.
Emma Stone and Joel Fry in a scene from Cruella. It’s been 25 years since Glenn Close played Cruella in 101 Dalmatians
In some striking ways, Cruella is reminiscent of 2019’s Joker, another prequel that sought to explain how Batman’s nemesis and supervillain emerged. But one big difference is that this is a comedy aimed at kids – with a release timed perfectly for the half-term vacation.
Some youngsters may be confused by the plot, which could have been a bit of a muzzle. After more than two hours, it’s 20 minutes too long – but there are more reasons to see it than not. The story begins with romping through orphaned Estella’s unhappy childhood, trying to make ends meet as a pickpocket in 1970s London, all the while making friends with a pair of scallywags, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). ).
Then, after dyeing her signature two-tone hair, she lands a job with a hauntingly grand and vengeful fashion empress known only as the Baroness (Emma Thompson, who conspicuously tries to outdo Meryl Streep in the classic The Devil Wears Prada from 2006).
Cruella is, in some striking ways, reminiscent of the 2019 Joker
The story begins with romping through orphaned Estella’s unhappy childhood as she tried to make ends meet as a pickpocket in 1970s London, all the while befriending a pair of villains, Jasper (Joel Fry, right) and Horace (Paul Walter). Hauser, left).
In her opinionated way, the Baroness recognizes that Estella may have some talent as a designer. “I think you’re … something,” she says, uncomfortably close to true praise.
But their relationship is doomed, and when Estella discovers that the Baroness was mistaken for the death of her mother (Emily Beecham) ten years earlier, she reinvents herself as a rival designer, Cruella, whose real identity no one knows.
Not only does she intend to embezzle, but also to humiliate her formidable ex-boss. And de Vil certainly isn’t wearing Prada – she appears to be wearing a coat made from the Baroness’ abducted Dalmatians, although it’s a detail that’s quickly obscured.
Both Stone and Thompson are in fine form when the two antagonists steal scenes from each other with Mark Strong, usually such a powerful actor, who barely gets a glimpse of the Baroness’ long-seated right hand.
Cruella opens in cinemas in the UK tomorrow
There are laughable moments for adults and kids alike and a gloriously eclectic soundtrack featuring the Rolling Stones, The Clash, Blondie, David Bowie, Queen, The J Geils Band, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Ken Dodd – like a Spotify listing with a split personality.
For fans of the 1961 animation, the original Cruella de Vil song will also get a broadcast. You may remember the lyrics: ‘This vampire bat. This inhuman beast. She should be locked up and never released … ‘
Well, that’s not the message displayed here. We’re clearly meant to support Cruella in her battles with the Baroness – she’s one of Hollywood’s modern day screen villains who deserve our empathy. That’s not what Dodie Smith meant at all. But perhaps the 21st century message is that, with the stark exception of Cruella’s locks, nothing is black and white.
Cruella opens in cinemas in the UK tomorrow.