Mark down Cruella as a villain origin story you didn’t know you needed. The latest trend of giving backstories to otherwise pretty transparent characters does get a bit tedious, but Craig Gillespie’s dive into a villain known for killing puppies is surprisingly fun, and involves no killings of our four-legged friends. In fact, the film often plays on our expectations of this character, to varying degrees of success.
A young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), with her natural dual-colored hair, is mean, rambunctious, and finds trouble around every corner of her school. Her anger goes straight to standing up to bullies, especially ones picking on her friend. When she gets kicked out, her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) takes her to London, but not before stopping at a lavish party, our first introduction to the film’s fashionable attire. This also marks Estella’s first run in with dalmatians, and the sequence firmly puts the film into an absurd fairytale setting; for this kind of origin story, it’s a perfect fit.
Much like her hair, Estella’s personality has a dark side, and yes, it’s given a name—Cruella. Throwing in an origin for a villain’s name on top of the actual origin story is a bit silly, but here it works, to an extent. As much as we are rooting for Estella during her various exploits into London’s high fashion scene, our knowledge of her from 101 Dalmatians can’t be ignored. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but Estella’s spiral into letting her dark inhibitions take control is a fascinating parable for a Disney villain. Where it loses its intent is connecting seamlessly to 101 Dalmatians; after all is said and done, it’s not clear how the Cruella at the end of Cruella turns into the one we know from other adaptations. Even more confusingly, both Anita (Kirby Howell-Bapiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak) make appearances, but more as supporting material to Cruella’s highjinks. Anita is vital in the back half of the film, but she could definitely be utilized more. If there’s not a plan for a live action 101 Dalmatians, they’re even more wasted than they are here.
Emma Stone nails this performance. Whether it’s Estella’s vulnerable moments, like when she confides in her mates Jasper and Horace, played by a perfect comedic duo in Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, or when she’s Cruella at her most devious, Stone disappears into the role at every turn. You’ll get no better showdown than Stone versus Emma Thompson as The Baroness, a terrifyingly genius fashion designer that gives Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada a run for her money. Costume designer Patricia Field pulls out all the stops to make Cruella beautiful to look at, as well.
A soundtrack full of well-known hits provides some fun needle drops set against plenty of petty thievery and even more petty fashion heists. It’s not perfect, and you’ll roll your eyes at more barely-there and coded LGBTQ characters who don’t get to shine as often as they should, like Cruella’s fashion partner Artie (John McCrea). As much of a good time as Cruella is, it’s still a shiny piece of IP from Disney.
Still, come for Stone and Thompson. Stay for the fashion and the many dog characters, which includes an eye-patch wearing chihuahua.