It’s easy to feel cynical about the live-action reboot industrial complex that’s had an iron grip on the House of Mouse for the last decade. Animated classics have been pulled from the vault only to produce less-than-inspiring end results, and that’s coming from the perspective of a die-hard Disney loyalist.
So, when it was announced that “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” – far from a Disney favorite – would be getting another live-action treatment, this time in the form of “Cruella,” excitement was not necessarily high. But where there’s Emma Stone, there is hope – and sometimes that’s all you need.
“Cruella” is not a live-action retelling of its source material like most of the recent outings have been, but instead falls somewhere in between reboot, prequel and spinoff. Who knew the fur-hungry villainess needed an origin story? Certainly not I, a viewer who had only seen the animated film and its flesh and blood follow-ups perhaps once in childhood. But thank god she got one, because “Cruella” is a genuinely fantastic film – and far and away the best live-action entry to date.
While Cruella may appear to be evil to the core in his later (er, earlier?) appearances, it turns out that’s not the case. As a child the young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) was certainly a rule-breaker, but when you don’t fit in and are constantly mocked, who wouldn’t be? Add in the guilt of inadvertently causing the traumatic death of your own mother and it’s enough to drive anyone into a life of crime.
Estella matures (now played by Stone) and teams up with petty thieves Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) to pick-pocket anyone and everyone walking the streets of London. All the while, Estella is chasing her dream of becoming the city’s greatest fashion designer and working for the legnedary Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). When an opportunity to study under the famed stylist presents itself, Estella takes full advantage, quickly climbing the ranks. But as she discovers a series of truths about her past, Estella is suddenly driven to embrace her darker alter-ego, Cruella, and an infamous rivalry with the Baroness takes over London.
It’s a classic case of “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us,” but when Cruella’s history comes to light, this back-and-forth contest quickly escalates to be about far more than just fashion.
When a movie is called “Cruella,” it’s safe to say the fate of the film rests on the woman playing the titular character – and Stone more than delivers. With the ability to seamlessly slip between two “characters” – the wholesome, kindhearted Estella and her ruthless counterpart – Stone shows extreme range, but never loses her charisma. Even when you know she’s wrong, and sometimes downright evil, it’s impossible not to love Cruella. While this may be looked down upon from the outside as “just another Disney reboot,” Stone brings her level of prestige talent to the film and consistently elevates it – one scene in particular in which she delivers a moving monologue to her deceased mother truly stands out.
Stone isn’t the only one having fun here, though. Hauser is the definitely of a scene stealer as the not-quite-bumbling but always a step behind Horace. Any time he’s on screen guarantees at least a smile, but more likely a belly laugh.
When it comes to style, “Cruella” gets its inspiration from de Vil herself – everything is to the max. From the production design to the classic soundtrack, and most certainly Stone’s 47 (!) different costumes, excessive style is the theme here, and when your movie is about, well, style, it fits perfectly. Some may argue the nonstop needle drops are too much, but the constant hits from 1960 through the ’80s perfectly match the chaos and tone of the film.
Where excess can be “Cruella’s” greatest strength, it can also be its downfall, most notably in its 134-minute runtime. As enjoyable as the film may be, there’s no denying it drags on a bit too long. Once Cruella and the Baroness develop their rivalry, a series of attacks take place with de Vil consistently upstaging her nemesis. For the first handful of occasions the thrills of the stunts are tangible, but on the fourth or fifth iteration it gets a bit stale. Trimming down this back and forth would not only make the stunts that do occur more meaningful, but would tighten the film down to prevent it from feeling bloated.
That’s not to say more of Stone’s Cruella is not warranted, though. “Cruella” very clearly tries to set up some continuation of the tale, introducing the original film’s protagonists, Roger Radcliffe (Kayvan Novak) and Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as well as their Dalmatian pups Pongo and Perdita. While Cruella still has a ways to go before becoming downright evil, it may be best to opt for a “Cruella 2” before taking another live-action stab at “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” but with a cast and crew this fun, the more the merrier.
As nice as that sounds, it’s uncertain whether Stone will reprise her role as Cruella, and while I may have had my doubts about the first go-round, I am more than happy to have been proven wrong.
“Cruella” hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on May 28.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.