How do you endear the audience to a woman who’s infamous for wanting to skin puppies? You Disneyfy her, it turns out—which is ridiculous to say about a character that’s belonged to Disney since 1961, but with Cruella, Disney makes de Vil safe, familiar, and broadly acceptable. If you wanted an origin story for the lady who’d kill for a good coat, that’s not what this is at all. Cruella is a near-total reimagining of the character. But who are we to complain about something new?
This is “something new” in the context of Disney, though, so you know—it’s more of a different brand of chips than a brand-new diet. We meet Cruella (Emma Stone) as a child, still going by her birth name Estella, stealing to survive on the streets of London. She lives in a dingy hideout with fellow thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), with whom she plans small-time grifts to stay afloat. Estella wanted to be a fashion designer before life hit the rocks, so she draws up the trio’s disguises, sewing elaborate outfits that eventually catch the attention of London’s couture queen: the lavish Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson).
The movie tries to make this feel like a big money vs. the little guy setup, but Cruella is first and foremost a product of big money, and it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this is the same ol’ Disney template with a darker coat of paint. The screenplay’s got every Disney cliché in the catalog: parent-involved tragedy, differently shaped sidekicks, a villain who starts as an ally, another “first openly gay character” that’s not explicitly queer, and even cute animal friends, despite what the titular character is most known for. The plot beats are plagiarized; it’s a hero’s journey story with a villain’s name plugged in. Disney is homogenizing their own past.
Thickening that corporate air is Cruella’s soundtrack, which is the most on-the-nose, heavily licensed collection of songs this side of Suicide Squad. It didn’t need to be that way—Disney hired Nicholas Britell, composer of the gorgeous score for Moonlight, for god’s sake, but they hid his work behind the most obvious hits imaginable. And despite Cruella’s punk posturing, a handful of the tracks are just ‘70s radio pop. But the soundtrack sure sounds expensive, and it’s sure to make that money back.
And yet, in the face of its many contrivances, something about Cruella makes it highly watchable from moment to moment. That something is the Emma factor. Stone and Thompson are having the time of their lives as dueling fashion icons, chewing up the scenery like it’s the last edible material on earth. Thompson is doing a campier Devil Wears Prada; Stone is playing de Vil as a winking provocateur; and when the Emmas are sparring on-screen, sparks don’t just fly—they ignite. Their performances are so transparently, invitingly theatrical that you feel like you should thank them backstage afterward. “You were so evil! I brought flowers!”
The silly, low-stakes tone gives the actors room to have their fun, even if it doesn’t offer them much else. For a title character, Cruella has little to no internal conflict. The screenplay explains upfront that Estella’s mean side has been around since she was a little girl—she even calls herself Cruella when she’s angry—and she switches between her personalities whenever it suits her. So when it comes time for adult Estella to stop playing nice, she simply flips a switch in her mind and becomes a Disney villain facsimile. There’s no gradual decline or (forgive the comparison) “one bad day” to lament. There’s no risk; Cruella can just put her Estella hat back on when she needs to be kind again. Her identity problem is never really a problem, which leaves the character sanitized and neutered.
Anything legitimately countercultural slips through the filmmakers’ fingers. But with the legendary Jenny Beavan behind the costume design, who needs thoughts in your head? The craftsmanship that went into the movie’s dresses is positively sumptuous, a nonstop feast for the eyes that slides banquet after banquet down a colorful tablecloth. Beavan won an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road’s costume design and she’s operating on that same level for Cruella—the movie doesn’t get better than what it’s wearing. Director Craig Gillespie and his longtime editor Tatiana S. Riegel know when to linger on the spectacle. They’re the architects of a cinematic runway.
Beyond the costume design, Cruella is saved by its own unpretentiousness. Unlike Disney remakes that lazily fed a popular agenda or half-apologized for the studio’s sins, Cruella skips the virtue-signaling by skipping the virtues altogether. Cruella’s cruelty may be watered down, but it hasn’t been replaced by hollow, corporate feminism. It’s just been shaved down into a market-tested good time.