Disney has found a racket in their live action ‘reimaginings’ of classic IPs. For instance, Jon Favreau’s awful 2019 shot-for-shot remake of The Lion King made almost $2 billion worldwide. And the lazy-but-fine-I-guess remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin each made well over a billion dollars at the box office. Some have come close to actual success. Mulan was less slavish about following everything fans wanted from it, but it was still like a B-. After waiting ten years for Disney to do something relatively interesting with one of their live action reimaginings, one finally has. Enter director Craig Gillespie’s dazzling, fashionable, campy and gloriously unexpected Cruella.
Estella (Emma Stone) is an orphan who becomes a pickpocket alongside her two accomplices Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) who she met as a child. Estella has always been rebellious, and has ambitions of being a famous fashion designer. After snagging an entry level job at the upscale department store Liberty of London, she crosses paths with the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), who changes the course of her life and sets off a chain of events that leads to Estella becoming the legendary villainess Cruella.
Cruella is without a doubt the best live-action Disney reimagining and that might be because it doesn’t feel very much like a Disney movie at all. Cruella feels like some sick, twisted, glorious hybrid of The Devil Wears Prada, Death Becomes Her, Joker and a fourth film I’m not going to name because it will spoil something pivotal about act 3 you don’t need to know until you see it. It’s decidedly darker than Disney’s Maleficent films, which argued that the famous villain was just misunderstood. Cruella isn’t really misunderstood. The film gives her character more context and offers perspective of her journey to give the audience a deeper understanding of who she eventually becomes but it never asks you to feel bad for her.
Emma Stone’s performance is pretty much stunning from top to bottom. She nails the accent, the mannerisms, the feigned vulnerability Cruella must whip out if the situation calls for it, but more importantly Stone nails the menace – the psychological decline and desire for revenge that sends Cruella down this path of vengeance. Stone nails that gray area between rooting for the character but not ever once really liking her, and that’s a difficult thing for an actor to pull off. There’s one unbroken long-take monologue near the end that solidifies how great this performance is. We never see Cruella utterly broken, reduced to tears and distraught, but we do see her struggling with emotional turmoil. Even in the moments where she’s put through the emotional wringer, we never see her totally break down. She’s always got another trick up her sleeve and a foolproof plan for how to take down her enemy.
Her chemistry with Emma Thompson’s legendarily evil Baroness is totally delightful. Putting Emmas Stone and Thompson against each other and watching the claws come out and the vicious attacks growing more and more personal and hateful as the film went on gave me the exact kind of campy thrills the Maleficent sequel failed to give me. Craig Gillespie seems to really understand why the audience is here – this is a campfest through and through. From the dialogue, dripping with acidic melodrama, to the soap opera style reveals and plot twists, to the costumes and the music (which we’ll get to), to the clash-of-the-titans factor of Stone vs. Thompson, especially, it is so much fun to watch these two ladies go to war, and the movie lets them revel in every second of it.
The setting of late ‘60s-early ‘70s London fashion scene gives this film the opportunity to really have fun with the aesthetic of it all, and the combination of Jenny Beaven’s immaculate costume design, the overwhelming collection of ‘70s punk rock needle drops and the gorgeous production design send this thing close to sensory overload. The costumes, jewelry, hair and makeup are out-of-this-world gorgeous and I would be shocked if Beaven did not get an Oscar nomination come winter. This is like an action movie where couture is the ammunition, and characters weaponize fashion to take down their opponent. There’s entire fashion set pieces that will leave your jaw on the floor.
I could see audiences responding negatively to the slightly-too-long running time (which didn’t bother me) or maybe the soundtrack being too on the nose, but Cruella leans hard into camp and never apologizes for it. It also sets up a sequel I’d love to see. The reason this stands apart from the other Disney live-action remakes is because it feels like it’s creating something wholly itself. You could walk into this not knowing anything about this character and still have a hell of a time. Cruella is dark, delicious, dazzling and delightfully anti-Disney. Oh, it also demands the biggest screen you can find. Don’t pay $30 to watch this on Disney+, go see it projected with a crowd if you’re comfortable doing so. Trust me, Cruella is absolutely worth it. I’m shocked Disney finally got one of these right.