Jared Jacoby’s review published on Letterboxd:
“The thing is, I was born brilliant, born bad, and a little bit mad. I'm Cruella.”
Taking place in the 1970s during the punk rock movement, the story follows Estella Miller who lives with her friends, Jasper and Horace. Before then, she had an alter ego as a child named Cruella that got her banned from school. When her mother is killed, that is when she found Jasper and Horace. As an inspiring fashion designer, the two thieves help Estella get a gig at a popular fashion store… cleaning toilets and taking out the trash. One day, the Baroness comes to the store and hires Estella after being impressed with her work. During narration, Cruella stated that happy accidents do happen, though she does say she would not know if she would keep the word happy.
Most Disney remakes do not intrigue me in the slightest. I think they are hard to get right because if you change too much from the original, it could come off as unfaithful or even pretentious. However, if you make a remake that changes almost nothing in the original film, it could come off as a shallow retread of the animated original film. Those two problems are pretty prominent live-action Disney movies based on their animation library. Why is this film different? I like Emma Stone, the premise intrigued me (A dark story in the lighthearted 101 Dalmatians world) and the trailer looked good so I was curious to see how the direction they would take one of Disney’s most notorious antagonists. Cruella De Vil seems like a difficult character to center a whole movie on. How does Cruella fare as a protagonist?
I want to say this. I am fine with Disney taking some of their most iconic villains and creating stories about them as the protagonists. Making a villain the main character can bring a new perspective on an old story while giving them more depth. However, while they can have a few sympathetic qualities, the writer needs to remember that they are villains and not anti-heroes. Cruella does a relatively good job at this. While the mean fashion designer is given more depth and a fleshed out backstory, she is still not a good person. She is not as villainous in the animated film, but she is mean and hammy. Nothing she does is outright heroic. That is one of this movie’s biggest strengths. Young Cruella seems believable in this world of fashion and ruthlessness.
In general, Cruella tells a very interesting story about how the Disney villain became who she was. The focus of the film is fashion. Estella (Cruella’s good nature) dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and her relationship with Jasper and Horace. It is also about her finding out what happened to her mother and the truth about her death. I like this movie’s sense of fashion as it fits the time period perfectly and it is nice to see a big budget movie about fashion in general. The script is solid as it takes time to explore Estella’s descent into Cruella as well as how she got her two henchmen to work for her in the first place. However, the first scene where it supposedly explains her hatred for Dalmatians is so corny and cheesy that I could not help but laugh. That, and the scene itself is poorly filmed and shot, but besides that, it feels like a tapped on motivation rather than just letting Cruella be more villainous. Her conflict with the antagonist is intriguing though and that works because that conflict grows more intense. The tension here builds throughout the entire runtime.
Cruella De Vil is hard to sympathize with knowing her nature in the animated film, but there are a couple times where it works. When she is mourning her mother and some of her scenes with Jasper and Horace are examples that show a softer side with depth and not just the hammy puppy killer we know. Aside from that, she works well as a protagonist not because of her sympathetic moments, but because of how interesting her personality is here. Instead of being ineffective and solely reliant on her henchmen, Cruella is very crafty and cunning with her planning. She acts like a troll to get under the antagonist’s skin. I love the way she makes her appearances because she knows how narcissistic her opponent is and she goes to lengths to exploit their ego. She is also surprisingly badass here. She fights a couple henchmen on her own, and like I said, she is crafty in her planning. In fact, she relies more on her wits and trolling than her strength. Her side as Estella is also interesting as it explores her nicer qualities as well as her passion for design. Her childhood is kind of sad, but that one scene is a bit too corny to take seriously. Overall, this movie takes a rather underdeveloped comedic villain and turns her into a compelling villain protagonist while still maintaining Cruella’s core nature: Her cruelness!
Emma Stone as the title character is just phenomenal. I did not know what to think at first when she was casted, but she was made for this role. Admittedly, her role as Estella is more or less a dorky Emma Stone, but when she turns into Cruella, she shines. Her hammy nature is perfect, especially her first entrance at the Baroness' party. She has so much fun with this role with how she embraces the over-the-top nature of the character. However, one of her best scenes here is a monologue with her mother which should be too cheesy to work, but it does because Stone makes it work by showing the character some humility and weakness. Stone also has a scene where she has hilarious expressions matching her narration in a scene where she looks up at the ceiling. Emma Stone was always a great actress, but she shows how she can transform into an infamous Disney villain.
As for the rest of the characters and performances, I like Jasper and Horace here a lot more than in the animated film. They come off as real people rather than bumbling henchmen. Cruella’s relationship with Jasper was surprisingly sweet. Horace is still a comedic relief, but he is more competent here. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser play their roles well. Emma Thompson plays the narcissistic Baroness von Hellman. She is fun in this role as she clearly has a good time, but the character is surprisingly sinister. It is hard to go into too much detail without spoiling it, but she was a better character than I expected her to be. Anita and especially Roger are rather minor characters. The movie is focused on Cruella and it actually shows her friendship with Anita, but Roger could have been taken out of the movie and little would change.
The script carries some level of originality. While there are clichés such as the dead parents at the beginning and life as thieves, Cruella’s tactics in dealing with the antagonist are genuinely clever. How often is it that you see a movie where the protagonist focuses more on trolling and outwitting the antagonist than beating them up in a big budget movie? The fashion theme and time period are both used perfectly. This film gave me a glimpse of the ‘70s rock era both in style and story. It even has Cruella use her nice personality to her advantage. That was really cool. The film is much darker than the animated film, but it still has plenty of comedic and over-the-top charm. The dialogue has some wit and charm as well as some corny parts, but some lines stick out in a positive way. This is easily one of the more creative live-action films from Disney.
As for the visuals, they are hit and miss. The costumes look incredibly inventive such as this dress made out of newspaper and the flame dress. Seriously, that newspaper dress is still on my mind. A lot of the outfits were intriguing, but some of them were not that great. However, when they scored, they scored. Cruella’s design looks solid throughout the film. Again, the opening scene with the CGI dogs looks laughably bad. The dogs look noticeably fake. Easily the worst looking part of the movie. The cinematography is great when the lighting is solid. There are some great shots in this movie such as a scene where the three climb a tall building and the shot with Cruella’s entrance. Some of the lighting could get really dark though, particularly the night time scenes.
The soundtrack is awesome. My mom recognized every single song and they were all from the era that this movie takes place in. This movie utilized the music from this era perfectly. Hearing Fire by Ohio Players in the theater was quite something as a Hell’s Kitchen fan. The editing is pretty solid. The heists with the trio have a good rhythm to them. The movie in general has a good rhythm which helps it move at a solid pace despite its long runtime.
Cruella is not without its faults, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I should have. I keep harping on Disney for their live-action films, but this is one of their better ones. It could have been trimmed a little bit and the first scene is weak, but what we have here is a legitimately creative take on a despicable Disney villain. Emma Stone carries the movie for sure, but the whole cast goes all out here. If Disney were to continue to make live-action movies based off of animated movies, I would rather have films like this than remakes.
Oh and stay through the credits… for a scene that brings a rather unfortunate implication that brings up a rather unpleasant question.