(Dawn Burkes has written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,The Dallas Morning News and she currently spends her days at the Los Angeles Times. She is one of my favorite critics in the world so I’m insanely proud she’s letting me share her review here.)
Disney keeps pulling tricks out of the magician’s hat, and this time, they may have pulled out one of the biggest: One of the best parts of “Cruella” is that at some point, you completely forget that it’s a Disney film.
The hallmarks are there: a tragic backstory with a dead parental figure; loveable misfits who meet cute; and a BIG BAD you can spot with your eyes closed. But, don’t test that theory out yet; you’re going to want to see what’s coming — and the why and the how that veer from the Cruella De Vil story that we think we know going into this movie that’s out in theaters and available on Disney+ starting Friday.
We meet Estella (Emma Stone) at the beginning of her life, born with her signature half-shock-white, half-black hair. (I really wanted her to choose the look!) Fast forward and she’s always in trouble, usually because she’s coming to another child’s defense, and she always does what she wants. Nothing, especially authority, stops Estella — you’ll want to put a pin in that for later.
Events lead the little “genius” and her mother to a mansion, a castle really, at which a ball is taking place. Told to stay (get it?), Estella, who is a hurricane everywhere she goes and winds up running from — less than 30 minutes in, there they are! — dalmatians, watches as her mother goes over a cliff.
She runs away and ends up meeting two little thieves beside a fountain. And the threesome, via montage, winds up doing what little thieves often do: growing up to become big thieves.
Though they are rather good at that, Estella’s long-held dream, encouraged by her mother, is to be a fashion designer; she makes their heist clothes, of course, but wants more. She starts at the bottom scrubbing floors, then just as suddenly becomes as close to a darling as anyone can get to the head of a major fashion house because she heeds the summons: “The Baroness needs lewks!”
Emma Thompson as the Baroness is haughty personified. As the kids say, if the stiff upper lip was a person. She’s mean, disrespectful and disruptive — with great taste. And, you’ll learn, she’s the embodiment of the Bill Lee-written song from the 1961 animated film (or Selena Gomez’s too-happy 2010 version, you pick): “to see her is to get a sudden chill,” “the ice in her stare,” “like a spider waiting for the kill.”
Events again, including life-threatening danger, and we finally get to meet the slighted and slightly punk rock Cruella (with her own song by Florence + the Machine) who reached back for her name and keeps starting “a fashion riot,” blowing up the Baroness’ events and reputation. Some of the how and why is lost, and the soundtrack has to do a little too much heavy lifting when it comes to setting the era. There are deeper thoughts here that aren’t quite explored: nature vs. nurture, personality disorders, bullying, hurt people hurt people, etc. But it’s a quibble when there’s so much else to look at. (That includes Mark Strong “Shazam,” who plays a confidante to the Baroness and grounds everything here.)
Disney keeps flexing its muscles, first with the innovative water-cooler subject “WandaVision,” followed by the topical thriller “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and the irreverence of Hulu’s animated “M.O.D.O.K.” “Cruella” gives them a chance to bench-press something heavy, an IP that has been manhandled and sometimes mangled in the past, and turn it into — dare I say it? — a Bond-like gambit. Can you say franchise?
Why not take advantage of the fact that director Craig Gillespie is reveling in the set pieces, and his subject?
And why not take advantage of the fact that Emma Stone looks and sounds as if she’s having a blast chewing as much scenery as humanly possible? Unlike in “Once Upon a Time,” in which the scary lady evinced magical powers (natch) or “Descendants” where she was reduced to a hapless, bumbling mother in “Descendants” or Goddess Glenn Close or the animated film in which she just wanted a dang coat, Stone’s Cruella is just. Plain. Machiavellian.
Calm down: There are flashes of Cruellas past in the movie. The casting of the henchman, a term I use quite loosely here, is cheekily done, especially Joel Fry (“Game of Thrones”) as Jasper. One can almost see the wink when he and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are framed just so. As the moments inevitably come when the movie and the fairy tale (?) meet, it doesn’t matter if you miss an Easter egg, it’s integrated so well.
Like the best villains, Estella tried hard to be good. But the twists and turns and secrets that come to light in the film just won’t allow the ferocious Cruella to stay bound; she basically said, “Girl. Bye.”
There are only two questions left: Who would want Cruella any other way? And where is that fashion tie-in? Auntie needs lewks. ***Kid (who hasn’t been able to sit through an entire movie since “Black Panther”) review: “Yes.”