All photos courtesy of Disney, Inc.
Disney’s newest live-action feature film, Cruella, takes us back in time to learn the origin story of vicious, narcissistic, dog-hating, fashion-obsessed villainess Cruella DeVil. Portrayed with aplomb by superstar Emma Stone, this incarnation of Cruella makes Glenn Close’s version seem ridiculous. The new Cruella is infinitely less frenetic and comedic, more pitiful: Estella, a frustrated artist, thwarted by tragedy and a cutthroat boss who takes credit for her work, is a role model for creatives who need to persevere. Just about everyone I know can relate to that woman. If Disney had left this story alone and not tried to tie it to the beloved 101 Dalmatians franchise, we might be applauding Cruella and begging for more stories about her.
There may be spoilers ahead; proceed with caution.
First, kudos: Emma Stone as Estella is likeable, funny, vulnerable. Emma Stone as Cruella is gorgeous, witty, and impeccably fashioned, whether it be out of the back of a garbage truck or lighting her gown afire at the gala. Emma Thompson as the driven Baroness von Hellman is an excellent villainess and foil to Estella/Cruella. Childhood sidekicks Jasper and Horace, played by sexy Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, are streetwise but tender themselves. Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling and Kayvan Novak as Roger are perfectly cast, both charming and refreshing the old roles. Anita and Roger have few lines but they offer a fingerhold on the original storyline from the sidelines.
BUT (spoiler)… For an origin story, this one missed the single key point we were all wondering about. What the heck is happening with the Dalmatians?
I firmly believe that dog-people are the best people. If you love a doggo, and Doggo loves you, you’re A-OK. Little Estella has a puppy named Buddy and grown-up Estella still has him. She clearly loves her dog. I spent the entirety of the film waiting for something terrible to happen to Buddy, or for Cruella to turn on dogs. She never does. In a far-fetched scene, three fairly vicious Dalmatians push Estella’s mother off a cliff (I KNOW, it was ridiculous!), but later it’s revealed that the dogs were only responding to the high-pitched dog-whistle blown by Baroness von Hellman. She ultimately, and rightly, blames the Baroness (Note: It’s always the dog owner’s fault, not the dog’s). The Dalmatians are still easily riled and bitey, but Cruella ends up owning them at the end. So how does Cruella become a puppy-murdering dog-skin-coat wearer? It doesn’t make sense, especially when you see the after-credit bonus scene where Cruella gifts Dalmatian puppies to Roger and Anita. <mind explodes>
If you’re trying to connect Roger and Anita, in this film, Roger is an attorney and Anita is a newspaper reporter and photographer (which are two separate jobs, like firefighter and police officer; most people do one or the other). They don’t know each other at all, and Roger doesn’t try to write music until the very end, after he’s been fired by the Baroness. (In the original novel, Roger was an accountant; in the cartoon feature, he was a songwriter. Anita was a spinster, then a housewife.) But these two are, as mentioned, delightful in their roles, and I expect there will have to be a sequel to Cruella to show us how they get together and when they go puppy-mad.
Oddly, in this film, Anita is school buddies with Estella, who sports her black and white hair from the get-go. In the original novel, Anita was afraid of Cruella, with her one black and one white braid, expelled from school for drinking ink. They were never friends. Hard to see how they will remain friends if Cruella gets on her dog-napping scheme. Estella/Cruella is still pals with Anita as adults, planting newspaper stories in Anita’s tabloid to rile the Baroness.
Last bone I’d like to pick: The promos say that Cruella’s story is set in the punk era of London in the 1970s, but first off the scenery is too Mod (pre-punk), then it’s past the punks and into New Wave. In other words, there is not a single blue mohawk or ear full of safety pins to be found. Where the costumer has put Estella the child into a school blazer covered in rock buttons and safety pins, it’s years too early (1969-70?) – and then later, adult Estella looks more noir, more goth than punk, in the 1980s. No punks. False advertising!
But what’s great about gothy Cruella is that she’s a brilliant fashionista with a flair for the dramatic. Her window display is fantastic, her larvae-encrusted gown is a genius plot device, and her garbage-truck flounce is perfection. So forget about the weird attempts to connect to the Dalmatian story, and focus on this Maleficent-Wears-Prada utter queen. Estella-Cruella, sans puppy mill, is amazing, a bucket of fun, and worth the price of popcorn.
Cruella is available on Disney+ or regional theaters.