When it comes to franchise building and marketing, Warner Bros has been emulating Disney for so long, it was only a matter of time before the House of Mouse reciprocated in kind. After the first trailer for Cruella was released a few months ago, many commented on how similar it looked to the promotions for Joker, from its gleefully unhinged tone to the gothic style of its title cards. Would this be Disney’s version of a darker, grittier origin story for one of its most notorious villains? After an all-too-common covid-related delay, the film now arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access with most of the Joker inspiration being held for the final act, preceded by a mostly enjoyable mélange of The Devil Wears Prada and The Favourite.
We meet Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) shortly before her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) dies tragically in a cliffside accident, leaving her to fend for herself on the crowded streets of London. She makes fast friends with grifting brothers Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), creating disguises for their homespun con jobs. Thanks to some sneaky maneuvering by Jasper, Estella lands an entry-level position at an extravagant fashion house headed up by the chilly Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). After toiling under her rule as a ruthless and cutting (quite literally, in one scene) designer, Estella concocts an alter ego called Cruella, an iconoclastic firebrand aiming to take the fashion world by storm and take Hellman out in the process.
Director Craig Gillespie, who painted a sympathetic portrait of another villainous female figure in the cheeky biopic I, Tonya, crams truckloads of exposition into Cruella‘s opening act. This kind of table-setting has been commonplace for Disney’s live-action spinoffs like Maleficent and its sequel, reorienting how we see previously animated antagonists before they turn to their wicked ways. This passage is the most tedious section of the film, setting up an ambitious and potentially interesting character in the most bland and paint-by-numbers way possible. Perhaps it’s not the movie’s fault that I’m completely underwhelmed by origin stories at this stage in the game but it doesn’t help that Stone narrates in voiceover with tired quips like “there’s many more bad things coming, I promise!”
But a funny thing happens around a third of the way through: the movie actually starts to click. Unsurprisingly, this is around the time Emma Thompson’s character, a dead ringer for Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly character in Prada, comes into focus as Estella’s opposing force. Stone and Thompson are electrifying as they go at each others’ throats, in more subtle ways when Estella is working under the Baroness but more bombastically once Cruella is unleashed. Part of Cruella’s plan is to show up the Baroness at her own events wearing outfits that are increasingly head-turning and headline-inspiring. It’s a devilishly decadent game of oneup(wo)manship guaranteed to score Best Costume Design nominations around awards season.
A third act twist elevates the stakes of the revenge even higher and makes good on the Joker similarities forecast in the teaser trailer, specifically in a mansion-set scene where Nicholas Britell’s music score does some heavy lifting. Up to that point, Gillespie flexes Disney’s music licensing budget by compiling an enjoyable but ultimately exhausting barrage of 1970s tunes from bands like The Clash and Blondie. If his influence from Scorsese wasn’t apparent enough in his previous film, he ends this movie with a one-two punch of a character breaking the fourth wall and a Rolling Stones cut that may or may not tie in with the title character’s last name. At a stout 134 minutes, Cruella isn’t the most brisk walk down the runway but it struts with a confidence that’s intermittently infectious.
Score – 3/5
More new movies coming this weekend:
Opening only in theaters is A Quiet Place Part II, a horror film starring Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy about a family continuing to survive in a world overrun by terrifying creatures that hunt by sound.
Streaming on Hulu is Plan B, a teen comedy starring Gus Birney and Mason Cook about a pair of high school students on the search for a Plan B pill after a regrettable first intimate encounter.
Premering on HBO Max is Oslo, a historical drama starring Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott about the development of the pivotal 1990s Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup