by @HolocronJosh for @FilmCodex
Disney’s track record with live-action adaptations of animated classics is mixed to say the least. While films like Aladdin were pleasant surprises, others like Mulan fell flat. So, going into Cruella, it was difficult to expect anything more than a decent, if not somewhat uninspired, live-action adaptation. Thankfully, however, Cruella is anything but that. Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl) creates a stylish and unexpectedly mature and dark origin story of Cruella de Vil anchored by two stellar performances.
Cruella is set during the punk rock movement of the 1970s and focuses on a young woman named Estella (played by Emma Stone), whose aspirations of becoming a fashion designer lead her down a notorious and criminal path as she becomes Cruella de Vil. Right off the bat, the question on my mind when approaching a film like this is: why is it necessary? Why do we need a Cruella de Vil origin story? Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara answer this question in ways that eerily evoke Todd Phillips’ Joker. There’s some intangible, almost indescribable quality of Cruella that is captivating from the start. We are firmly beside Estella as she endures trials and tribulations and becomes the notorious villain we all know. Emma Stone really makes the role her own, dispelling any suggestion that the role was made for Glenn Close. Her change in character throughout the film, growing in confidence and also danger, is is successful largely due to Stone’s performance as the script is somewhat inconsistent in tone and pacing.
Although the movie clocks in at a lengthy 134 minutes, Cruella feels like it never takes a step back to let the characters (and the audience) breathe a little. The script probably needed some trimming in order to afford this sort of much needed space in the movie. Driving the somewhat frenetic pacing is the film’s soundtrack, which will surely be a topic of discussion as more people see the film. Cruella is packed to the brim with classic songs of the era. It’s not long after hearing a song by Nina Simone than you’re thrown into iconic songs by Queen, Blondie, The Clash, and more. The music is a mixed bag to say the least – at its best, it adds a sense of grandiosity and gravity to the film, but, at its worst, at times feels like a music video. Perhaps a more apt comparison is that Cruella doesn’t utilize music with the deft hand employed by James Gunn in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but it’s a notable improvement over the jarring shifts from track to track seen in 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Perhaps the most surprising element of Cruella was its inclusion of rather dark themes and plot points. Cruella is rated PG-13 and firmly warrants that rating. The world Gillespie creates isn’t the innocent and bright landscape we’re used to seeing in many Disney films. 1970s London really comes alive in the film, with all of it’s glamor and grit. The production design is incredible and the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. Gillespie crafts a film that fully embraces its setting and era in ways beyond music inclusion (not to mention the jaw dropping costume design). Emma Thompson’s villain Baroness von Hellman also pushes the film into unexpectedly dark territory in wonderful ways. Thompson rivals Stone’s character every step of the way and, at times, it’s difficult to tell who is delivering the more impressive performance. Thompson really chews up the scenery and goes all out with her villainous portrayal – emphasis on villainous, because she nor the script cut back in making her a particularly empathic character.
Cruella is perhaps the most stylish of the recent slew of Disney live-action adaptations. Although at times it feels chaotic and uneven, the film fully embraces its era, setting, and opportunities for darker storytelling in spectacular fashion. Driven by two superb performances from Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, Cruella largely overcomes its inconsistent script and overuse of music in delivering a Joker-esque origin story of an iconic Disney villain.
Images courtesy of Disney