'CRUELLA' Review: 101 Dalmatians and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Cruella de Vil
The recent Disney re-imagines have been a polarizing device among Disney diehards and casual fans from afar, and Cruella (2021) drives another wedge between the ideas that these live-actions are Disney-branded cash grabs, or if they're important enough to build upon hallmark classics.
While a cinematic origin story of the infamous Cruella de Vil's (Emma Stone) coming-of-age presented as a live-action performance may sound intriguing as a concept, there's nothing surprising about this two-toned fashion fiend's roots. Born as Estella, 'Cruella' is revealed to be a nickname for her ruthless personality that she is supposed to suppress. In true Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn (2020) technique, Cruella walks through every moment of her life, from birth onwards, voicing over in quippy narratives dripping with nerve. From childhood bullying to Dalmation-related trauma, and the Disney trademark of a lost parent figure at a young age, Cruella checks off every expectation that its trailers set out. There's also the repetition of taking refuge with a pair of trouble-making outcasts, where de Vil is taken in by future henchmen Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
Encasing itself in the era of British punk, Cruella's spunk is borrowed from the artistic tastes of high fashion and hard rock. The soundtrack emphasizes the toughened attitude of the piebald punk prequel. While Disney may flaunt their ability to buy the rights of use of music from iconic bands such as Blondie, Queen, The Doors, and The Clash, the real clash is not the clash of bold spring and fall fashion lines on parade, but the tactless sound mixing.
Cruella sees its success as a high-energy fashion show. Through and through, it identifies as a stylish romp. Elaborate, intricately stunning, and daringly cutting-edge costume designs are enough to spark inspiration and awaken inner stylists. They're enough to bend over backward and to strike the heart of the titular character's true aspirations, whether as Cruella or Estella, and become a fearless fashion mogul. Each display is far more brazen than the last, from evening gowns that transform into something even more ornate after being ignited, a la Katniss Everdeen's (Jennifer Lawrence) Mockingjay dress from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), to the signature spots of Dalmatian print. Though, for a dog-driven Disney villain, the CGI dogs distract from the intensity of de Vil's ongoing disdain.
The task at hand is a challenge: spinning the story of a canine-couturiere into a spirited anti-hero haunted by her past. While it isn't the most complex performance, Stone sashays between two personalities, and while the material may tick off the boxes it limits itself too, there's room to play with this unexpected Joker (2019) crossover with The Devil Wears Prada (2006), if Anne Hathaway was replaced by an eccentric, unhinged, Harley Quinn-aspirant. Emma Thompson's pompous, poised, and apathetic Baroness spurs on cutthroat competition between herself and her protege, spiraling into equally deranged means fueled by revenge. Seeking a more blackened feel for this off-beat prequel, there's a darker theme that courses its way through an already unusual character choice to be revamped and rejuvenated.
Cruella is an acquired taste for as formulaic as it may be, though it is striking in its style. Stone and Thompson may make for a fair match for the story to fall back on, though it's known that the true star of the show is the costume design. Costume Designer Jenny Beavan strings together punk and sophistication, creating the most dazzling looks that put Haute Couture to shame. Packing more bark than bite, Cruella is as quirky and predictable as it is fierce, fiery, and dressed to kill.