Another Take: Cruella
Rather than fall back on formula, “Cruella” uses its animated and live action predecessors as a mere launch pad for something different and dazzlingly original.
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“Cruella” is not the movie I was expecting them to make.
I’ve wavered on Disney’s recent obsession with turning its iconic animated titles into live action films. “Cinderella” was perfectly wonderful, “Dumbo” was a horrid embarrassment, and most of the rest have been somewhere in the middle like “The Lion King” -- technically accomplished but artistically unnecessary.
So for “101 Dalmatians,” I was expecting them to crank out another iteration of the live-action version featuring Glenn Close 25 years ago, putting iconic villainess Cruella de Vil in the driver’s seat in a family-friendly romp. Emma Stone seemed a strange casting choice, as Cruella is definitively a well-etched harridan, and Stone is barely past the ingénue stage.
“Cruella” is deeper, darker and more ambitious than I could’ve hoped. I should have expected nothing less from director Craig Gillespie, known for odd and offbeat fare like “Lars and the Real Girl” and “I, Tonya.”
It’s rated PG-13 and is an edgy origin story in which Dalmatians barely show up -- and only then as furry antagonists. That’s right, Cruella is recast as a misunderstood antiheroine who’s not trying to turn spotted puppies into a fur coat but is someone who’s been victimized and traumatized and learns to lash out.
It’s also an exquisitely striking movie filled with vibrant colors and fabulous clothes. You can already go ahead and bank on costume designer Jenny Beavan getting an Oscar nomination for all the fabulous, ostentatious gowns and get-ups Stone and the rest of the cast get to wear.
I was also impressed with the originality of the backstory (screenplay by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara). Here she is Estella, an orphaned moppet born with shocking black-and-white hair raised by a kindly British mum (Emily Beecham) who instructs her to bury her nastier instincts, even when she’s picked on by prigs at her posh school. (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland plays the role as a child.)
In this version, “Cruella” is the name they come up with for her evil-leaning alter ego. But Estella learns to push down these characteristics, both figuratively and literally, dying her bi-color hair red and hiding behind owlish glasses. After her mother’s shocking death, she grows up as a petty thief with fellow orphans Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), though she aspires to be a fashion designer.
She gets a job at the snooty Liberty of London store but is consigned to cleaning lady. A drunken sabotage of a display window lands her a position with the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the queen of Brit fashion, who takes her under her wing and teaches Estella the finer points of being a sneering, hateful overlord.
The Emmas, Stone and Thompson, are a delicious pairing, a battle of haughty English accents and upturned noses. The comparison to Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” seems obvious, and welcome. Though in this case, Estella looks upon her tormentor as someone to be emulated and defeated rather than serve as cautionary tale.
Estella revives her Cruella persona as the public challenger to the Baroness’ tight grip on the fashion world, using her criminal team -- the two boys plus two little dogs, including one in an eye patch -- to pull off a series of attention-grabbing stunts that double as crimes and put-downs. With a story set in the 1970s, there’s a bittersweet feminism subtext at play about extraordinary women who must command fear because they aren’t allowed to earn respect.
“Aren’t they gorgeous and vicious? It’s my favorite combination,” Baroness says of her trio of guard Dalmatians.
John McCrea turns up as Artie, a gender-fluid vintage clothing store owner who becomes a friend and ally; Mark Strong as John, the Baroness’ right-hand man and the only person allowed to talk back to her; Andrew Leung as a more toadying flunky, perpetually astonished or horrified; and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as a childhood friend turned fashion journalist.
Rather than fall back on formula, “Cruella” uses its animated and live action predecessors as a mere launch pad for something different and -- dare I say about a remake of an old cartoon? -- dazzlingly original.