‘Cruella’ Imagines a Classic Disney Villain’s Beginnings With Glam-Punk Style

Disney continues to dabble in the imagined biographies of its characters with “Cruella,” a glam-punk and goth inspired take on the backstory of Cruella De Vil. Everyone remembers Cruella. She’s the acid-tongued, malicious snob who becomes obsessed with capturing a particular pack of Dalmatians for the purpose of turning them into her latest coat. In the classic 1961 animated “101 Dalmatians” and 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as De Vil, Cruella is up there with Gaston as one of the more human villains in the Disney canon. She doesn’t have super powers, just a super ego. “Cruella” is exactly what we expect from a Disney origin film. It keeps everything family-friendly and age-appropriate, but for the most part it makes a convincing, visually lively effort to give the chain-smoking terror a convincing origin tale. 

The film first opens in the ‘60s, when a young girl named Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) watches helplessly as her laundrywoman mother dives to her death, after being pushed by some Dalmatians, at an opulent fashion designer’s party. She is left orphaned and makes her way to London, where we see her now grown in the 1970s. Adult Estella (Emma Stone) wants nothing more than to be a fashion designer herself, but for now lives a thieving existence with two fellow outcasts-turned-bandits, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). She has a dual nature, the darker side which she calls “Cruella.” Jasper manages to get Estella an interview at a local, highly fashionable boutique as a maid. Despite angering her boss with her sharp observations of how lacking the shop’s designs have become, Estella catches the attention of Baroness von Hellman aka The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a London fashion powerhouse looking for the next big thing. The Baroness takes Estella under her wing and soon begins to covet her rebellious, elegantly dangerous designs. As Estella feels the weight of The Baroness’s dismissive and cutthroat ways, she begins to take them on herself to wage a fashion war to come out on top.

“Cruella” is directed by Craig Gillespie, who has made films ranging from the family-friendly to wicked satire. His last movie, 2017’s “I, Tonya,” was a feverish take on the life of dishonored ice skater Tonya Harding, but was also a biting commentary on America. But before that Gillespie had already worked with Disney on the very PG “Million Dollar Arm.” With a big budget and two equally talented leads, Gillespie’s take on Cruella De Vil nonetheless is much more about its look. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis makes everything look rich, even the grimier apartment where Estella holds court with her bandits. The beginning of the film features a ball in a mansion with everyone decked in Marie Antoinette-style wear, giving off a sense of decadence rare in a Disney movie. While the ads have tried to give the impression “Cruella” is some sort of Punk film, it is nothing of the sort. Never is ‘70s London Punk culture actually explored or commented on. Estella never goes to a Punk show, although later she stages a fashion runway/rock performance outside of the Baroness’s latest gala. The soundtrack is also edgier than the usual Disney fare. The Doors’ “Five to One” announces the arrival of The Baroness, and no one could have imagined a day when a Disney movie would feature characters performing Iggy & The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Too bad Iggy himself doesn’t make a cameo.

Where Punk aesthetic plays more of a role is in the designs Estella conjures to challenge the Baroness’s more refined, stuffy sense of style. She essentially stages guerrilla fashion strikes, interrupting events where the Baroness is the center of attention by popping out of a garbage truck or other gimmicks, dressed in more gothic, shredded, grungy dresses and makeup. It is fun, celebrating the kind of fashion made popular by Tim Burton films a few years back. There’s also an extra dimension to the story with these moments. The screenplay is by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara. Fox wrote “Isn’t It Romantic” and McNamara wrote Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliantly scathing “The Favourite.” So you can almost sense somewhere beneath all the visuals an attempt at satirizing the fashion world. The Baroness likes pushing her staff to death only to take credit for what they produce. In one fantastic scene Estella gets her revenge with a storm of moths that devour dresses the Baroness prizes but had nothing to do with. 

On another level, “Cruella” seems to have hidden jabs at cutthroat corporate culture, which of course may read as ironic. While it runs a bit long at 134 minutes (though never slow), the story does succeed in giving us a sense of how someone like Estella eventually transforms into Cruella. It’s not so much because of the whole obsession with fashion. Instead, a combination of her mother’s death and a sense of helplessness pulls her into The Baroness’s orbit and she becomes influenced by the Baroness’s attitude of step over whoever you have to, dismiss the weak and get what you want no matter what. You almost expect to see copies of Ayn Rand books strewn around the office. Emma Stone slyly transforms on screen from a bandit with a heart of gold into a more selfish egomaniac. Even Jasper has to remind her she needs to appreciate her friends a little more. Emma Thompson compliments her with an icy, intimidating performance full of terrifying charm. She’s almost channeling Michael Douglas’s merciless Wall Street player Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street.” While the plot is very Disneyfied, packing winks everywhere at “101 Dalmatians,” with lots of chases and gags, within its franchise universe, it truly attempts to paint a portrait of Cruella and how someone’s attitude can be changed through ambition and toxic environments.

Fans of “101 Dalmatians” will of course wonder how this film connects to the animated classic or the 1996 remake. The set-ups are all there, including new, diverse casting for Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Roger (Kayvan Novak), the Dalmatian-owners who will square off with Cruella in the future. As tends to happen this is also the area where the movie tries too hard to remind us that it’s a prequel, with the forced inclusion of Dalmatians into the plot that gets over-the-top. But the average younger viewer won’t mind. The film also avoids overloading on the CGI, going for simpler, enjoyable shots like Cruella at a party setting a fire on herself that switches dresses. With popcorn flare the movie ends as it should, with Estella transforming fully into Cruella De Vil, complete with her luxurious car which takes her to a decadent, gothic mansion that will be her base of operations. While all of that is entertaining to look at, if we step away from the soundtrack and fantastic hair and makeup work, “Cruella” stands apart as a lengthy, jumpy, but nevertheless admirable take on expanding a Disney character. When it truly succeeds it makes the villain out to be more than bad, but empathetic. Even the most sinister evil-doer came from somewhere and was shaped by all the thorns life likes to grow along its path.

Cruella” releases May 28 on Disney+ Premium Access and in theaters nationwide.