Wow! What a ripping good, most entertaining, magnificently realised origin story. Cruella is clever, funny and sassy – a family comedy turned sophisticated adult offering.
English children’s novelist and playwright “Dodie” Smith is best known for the novel The Hundred and One Dalmations (1956), which became the big screen animation 101 Dalmations in 1961. Disney made a live action remake in 1996, with Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil (and there was also a sequel four years later). Now we turn back the clock to see how Cruella came to be.
The movie is primarily set in the vibrant punk era of ‘70s London. Cruella begins life as Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a gifted, non-conforming young girl being brought up by her single mother, who tries in vain to bring her daughter’s devil may care attitude to heel. Estella is energetic, edgy and creative and gives more than she gets, which sees her in constant trouble. Heading from the country to the city, an unfortunate fate awaits Estella’s mother, whereby the girl is left to fend for herself, with her faithful little dog Buddy in tow. She befriends two petty thieves, Horace and Jasper – realised as adults by Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry – who take her in and become her family.
Ten years on, Estella (Emma Stone) is 25 living harmoniously – enacting scam after scam – with Jasper and Horace. She dreams of becoming a fashion designer and unexpectedly gets her chance – at the ground level, mind you – in an upmarket department store, Liberty of London, thanks to Jasper, who has “pulled a few strings”. Let’s just say it is not the experience Estella had wanted it to be. As chance would have it though, her handiwork is noticed by the uppity doyen of fashion, known as the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella believes she has finally found the mentor who will help her achieve everything she has always desired, until a revelation that shocks significantly alters her fate.
There is so much about Cruella that is so good. First up, plaudits to Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) for the cracker script that takes us on a journey – a rollicking ride. Secondly, the performances – led from the front by two artists who are used to excelling at their craft (Stone and Thompson) – are fabulous.
Stone channels mood swings with aplomb, as Estella becomes Cruella – her facial expressions adding to her pitch perfect delivery and timing, while Thompson revels in playing bad. Both are showy performancess and, in isolation, would be worth the price of admission. But they are far from alone, as Hauser’s comic genius and Fry’s empathy are memorable. John McCrea turns his role as Artie – the proud, cross dressing proprietor of a pre-loved clothing boutique (and Estella’s kindred spirit) – into a sure-fire winner. Mark Strong is a tower of diplomacy as the Baroness’ dutiful “servant” – the valet John.
The sets, settings and stunning costuming by Jenny Beavan and eyewear by Tom Davies elevate Cruella further. Fiona Crombie’s production design is exemplary, while Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography is compelling. I greatly appreciated Nicholas Britell’s original up-tempo score, while huge credit must go to Craig Gillespie’s fine direction in a film that’s long but satisfying.
Cruella manages to bring elements of Todd Phillip’s powerful Joker (2019) and David Frankel’s comedic drama The Devil Wears Prada (2006) to its own delightfully twisted story arc. It’s well worth a trip to cinema to see, though the film is also available to stream via Disney +. High gloss, high fashion and hijinks abound. Don’t miss it.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.