The devil wouldn’t be caught dead in Prada in Disney’s latest live action reboot – a delve into the origin story of iconic 101 Dalmatians villainess Cruella de Vil. Born Estella (she will grow into “Cruella” later), you suspect Emma Stone’s budding fashion designer would find Prada way too basic, her punk rock tastes leaning more towards Vivienne Westwood in both attitude and aesthetic. She looks amazing. She’s a provocateur, an icon, a genius and a master show woman. What she isn’t is someone you could ever imagine killing a puppy, but more on that later.
Directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie, opening concurrently in cinemas and on Disney+, Cruella is the very best of Disney’s recent crop of live action remakes since The Jungle Book – a raucous, vibrant romp with some outstanding central performances. A brand new story and way more fun than Maleficent or Universal’s dour Snow White and the Huntsman, Cruella maybe a prequel to 101 Dalmatians, charting the rise, fall, and rise again of an icon, but it works just as well, if not better, as a standalone.
Creative but rebellious from a young age, and born with the iconic two-tone hair, young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) has trouble fitting in at school. Unprepared to respect authority or to put up with the school bullies, when she’s expelled her mum (Emily Beecham) plans to move them both to London for a new start and to give Estella the best shot at achieving her dream of becoming a fashion designer. But on the way tragedy strikes, and Estella finds herself in London alone and with nothing. She is taken in by a couple of lovable urchins, Jasper and Horace, and the three become a successful gang of pickpockets and grifters while Estella develops her skills as a seamstress and designer making costumes for the gang to aid them in their schemes. That’s until a real job comes up, working at department store Liberty.
Cruella begins as a classic rags to riches story, a wonderful, feel good journey about scrappy outsiders taking care of each other and finding success through hard work and raw talent. And when young Estella is discovered by legendary fashion designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson) after drunkenly creating an outrageous window display, we are in pure wish fulfillment territory, the two creating onscreen sparks bright enough to set your beehive alight.
Stone is blazingly charismatic and her look, courtesy of legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan, who won the Oscar for the Mad Max: Fury Road, is just stunning. The Devil Wears Prada is certainly a touchpoint, as haughty auteur The Baroness recognizes Estella’s talent and reluctantly takes her under her wing. Though Thompson is delightfully OTT in towering wigs, sharply angled couture, and an even sharper tongue, Estella’s rise to securing a place within The Baroness’ inner circle, and the various lavish events and galas that punctuate the film, are the equivalent of vintage champagne for the parched throats of viewers shut in their houses and mostly wearing pajamas for the past year.
1970s London is brought to vibrant life, the soundtrack is banger after banger (is it possible for a film to have too many bangers?), and even the rundown garret where Estella, Jasper (Joel Fry), and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) live looks impossibly romantic.
But of course, this is the story of how Estella became Cruella and some revelations from her past ignite a revenge plot line which begins with a planned heist during a ball (coordinated hijinks worthy of an Ocean’s movie) and turns into full on fashionista war as Estella, under her new name, sets out to disrupt the industry. Dress porn doesn’t even begin to describe the sartorial eye candy on display here and Stone’s magnetic performance sells it completely. More than a brilliant designer, she is a rebel, fighting for a cause (albeit a very personal one), and though she gets caught up in her own mania, there remains something proudly courageous and vital about Cruella from start to finish.
It’s the movie’s greatest strength and its biggest curse. Estella/Cruella is wonderful. She is sympathetic (the film is genuinely dark and upsetting at points), and her relationship with her found family Jasper, Horace, and later vintage shop owner Arty (played by Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s John McCrea) is touching and ultimately keeps her in check. They’re all great but Fry as Jasper gives a particularly endearing performance.
More strong supporting turns come from The Good Place’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Estella’s former schoolfriend Anita, What We Do in the Shadows‘ Kayvan Novak as lawyer Roger, and Mark Strong as valet John, adding extra class and by the end a few 101 Dalmatians Easter eggs. Should “Cruella II” be on the cards, there are nods at where it might go. Certainly if there were ever plans to redo 101 Dalmatians, they might need another bridging film since there is no way this Cruella is a vicious puppy-skinner in the making.
But with a film this joyful, who cares? Not a villain then, and not even an anti-hero but a self-made woman who has pulled herself up by her (fabulous) bootstraps. Little girls could do well to ditch the Disney princess dress for a black and white wig and shoulder pads. Who would have thought that a Disney movie would opt to reclaim the C-word for women all over the world? There are worse things you could be called.
Cruella opens in cinemas and on Disney+ on May 28.