Arts, Culture & Lifestyle

Film Review: Cruella is brilliant, bad and a little bit mad

Forget the Met Gala. With high-octane fashion, high-stakes heists and a high-camp Emma Stone, this is the fashion event of the year.
Reading time 5 minutes

Delving into the bad-girls-gone-good cinema trope, while instinctively intriguing especially in a world where political correctness is increasingly in fashion, oftentimes means flirting with disaster. It’s even more alarming when the bad girl in question is someone whose existence in the Disney canon is defined by her insatiable hunger for fur regardless of its origin — from the fierce Siberian tiger to the defenceless wide-eyed Dalmatian pups.

Cruella, a live-action film that flips the script on Dodie Smith’s supervillainess from The Hundred and One Dalmatians, braves the elements to take on such an offensive character and comes out triumphant with a tale worth telling. A major turning point that works to Cruella’s advantage is that it is neither a carbon copy of the original premise nor a revisionist rehashing of it à la Maleficent — another Disney antagonist that was given a narrative reframing.

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If anything, Cruella is an origin story. A boldly inventive one at that. The film chronicles the early days of Cruella de Vil which unfold in 1970s London amidst the punk rock revolution. It follows a young orphan named Estella (Emma Stone), an aspiring designer who uses her genius to con her way up the ladder, as she navigates life in the glam-infused city with her two equally mischievous partners in crime Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry).

The trouble trio is always on the move, running grifts as small as pickpocketing unassuming commuters on a London’s staple double-decker bus to as big as sneaking out diamond jewellery from high-end establishments. It’s a way of living they’re accustomed to until a chance encounter with tastemaker Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) sets off a chain of events that prompts Estella to embrace her wicked side and gradually morphing into the Cruella we all love to hate.

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The Craig Gillespie-directed romp, as it stands, is one of the better live-action films to come out of Disney to date. Its ambitious world building—an integral part of it being the clothes—alone is worthy of a few accolades. From Cruella’s show-stopping garbage truck gown with a 12-metre-long train to the Baroness’ sculptural black-and-white dress, costume designer extraordinaire Jenny Beavan imparts her virtuosity with every distinctive look which further establishes the characters.

Beyond the aesthetic and visual sensibilities, Cruella as a feature film succeeds in its attempt to tell a story of a woman scorned by the virtue of her individuality. Estella’s mere existence here is used as a weapon against backward-thinking society that frowns upon the most trivial matters such as hair colour. Combining that with her naturally brazen attitude that lets no man keep her down for long, one can’t help but root for this version of Cruella.

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To that end, a fresh batch of flowers should be thrown in Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s direction. Sharing a screenwriting credit, alongside Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis who receive the “story by” acknowledgement, the two have devised a diegesis full of tricks and treats that engages the viewers in a game of cat and mouse in a sense that it taunts them to keep up. Their deeper introspection of the subject furthermore supplies the stars with plenty of meat to gnaw on.

Stone, in particular, injects pathos and her own movie star charisma into the titular character and effortlessly leans into her sly braggadocio mode whenever her Cruella is locking horns with Thompson’s Baroness. A commanding presence throughout, Stone is at her most brilliant in a sequence near the Primrose Hill fountain in the third act where she delivers a raw, almost primal, monologue that sees the two clashing personalities, Estella and Cruella, become one.

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Cruella on its own makes a thoroughly enjoyable watch despite its 134-minute running time. As an origin story or a prequel, however, it does bear some glaring inconsistencies. But while some may view them as plot holes, we see them as loose ends to be tied up in a sequel. After all, Stone herself has reportedly signed a new deal that will see her returning as the notorious fashionista with Gillespie and McNamara also assuming their respective roles.

Will we finally see Cruella in her signature fur ensembles? Her descent into madness now that she’s come into a fortune because, you know, (love of) money is the root of all evil? And will we see her relationship with one of her henchmen Jasper explored and ultimately blown up to bits that would decode Glenn Close’s ultra-feminist line: “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease and disaster.”? Here’s hoping.

Cruella is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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