By Lynn Venhaus
A cheeky live-action prequel that delves into the down-and-out origins of one of Disney’s iconic villains, “Cruella” is a dark tale of dueling divas hell-bent on revenge.
That’s an unexpected underdog twist – and this glossy reimagining bursts with a bold, brassy attitude.
Estella de Vil (Emma Stone) wasn’t born to be bad, but she was a nonconformist at an early age.
Born with the unmistakable two-tone hair, Estella’s a creative but mischievous child (a spunky Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) who is a handful for her mother (Emily Beecham).
When she strikes out on her own on the streets, that begins her relationship with Jasper and Horace, who are rakishly played by character actors Joel Fry of “Yesterday” and Paul Walter Hauser of “Richard Jewell” as adults — good-hearted blokes. They survive as grifters.
But the future fashionista has a dream and is singled out by superstar designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who likes her style – and appropriates it for her collections. Haughty and vain, the Baroness has destroyed everyone in her way – but has she met her match in Cruella? The rebellious alter ego of Estella, Cruella’s punk rock outfits are redefining fashion in 1970s London, and it is game on!
The story, long in the works, was first drafted by screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis. McKenna wrote “The Devil Wears Prada” and you see those fingerprints all over this latest chapter in the “101 Dalmatians” oeuvre by co-screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara.
This is where Emma Thompson takes over, commanding every frame she is in, with personality and pizzazz, as she forges Estella/Cruella’s identity.
A chance encounter with The Baroness von Hellman, the prima donna of haute couture, puts Estella on the path to realize a career as a designer. As played by Thompson, the wickedly evil Baroness is a despicable human and corrupt fashionista. As Cruella learns more, she stakes her claim as “The Future” of fashion. She takes swinging London by storm.
This is when the movie explodes with fresh and fun outfits in a swirl of black, white and red — the notorious colors associated with all things Cruella. Jenny Beavan’s costume designs are marvelous, a big loud rebel yell of punk-inspired outfits and gorgeous evening garments perfect for dramatic entrances. Beavan’s won Oscars for “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “A Room with a View,” and her use of different fabrics and textures is stunning.
These costumes are worn with flair by two of our best actresses, Oscar winners Stone and Thompson, who have a ball with the campier aspects of their roles — but also vividly create their characters’ dead-serious nature.
As for the Dalmatians that first created the Disney franchise all the way back to 1961, three mean ones appear as the pets of the Baroness. Hence, Cruella’s aversion to the spotted creatures. Estella’s own pet dog is a beloved mutt named Buddy.
Stay past the credits to find more on Anita and Roger, a nod to Pongo and Perdita’s future family.
The source material for all of the successive movies, including the live-action “101 Dalmatians” in 1996 and the 2000 “102 Dalmatians” starring Glenn Close as the imperious villain, has been Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel.
She turned a character’s last name from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Count de Ville, into this greedy villainess, driving a Rolls Royce and barking orders to her henchman, to fill her insatiable need for animal fur.
Where the franchise is headed after “Cruella” is anyone’s guess – because how would Stone’s character turn into the menacing de Vil that steals the dogs for their fur?
Well, that discussion is for another day, but it’s a logical question – where does it go from here after Cruella takes over Hell(man) Hall?
As for a stand-alone movie, “Cruella” is a vibrant creation with a banging period soundtrack and a game cast.
Just as he did with “I, Tonya,” director Craig Gillespie zigs when you expect him to zag.
The Baroness’ actions are too frightening for young children, so parents be aware. There is nothing remotely cute about this movie.
But as it is Disney, expect lots of merchandise, tie-ins and another one in the works. That’s about the only predictable element to this film.
“Cruella” is a 2020 comedy-drama directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Mark Strong. Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements and the run time is 2 hours, 14 minutes. It is available in theaters and on Disney Plus for a one-time premium access fee on May 28. Lynn’s Grade: B+
In theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access one-time additional fee May 28
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.