The recontextualization of the Disney villain proves to be a winning character study
Disney’s live-action remake craze was beginning to make me lose faith in many of their projects, as I saw inventive directors such as Guy Ritchie and Jon Favreau get sucked into making a modernized replica of their source material. Along with this remake craze came a recontextualization of classic villains, both in Disney with the hit Maleficent (2014) and its dud sequel, and in superheroes with Joker (2019). Both films had me skeptical about stretching out IP for cash, but I was pleasantly surprised in each case. However, I still remained cautious when entering and seeing Disney’s new attempt at a remake/recontextualization with Cruella (2021).
Cruella looks at the origin story of the villain from 101 Dalmatians (1961). Here we see how the titular character was actually named Estella (Emma Stone) and how she goes from bullied orphan, to slowly making her way through London society to become a fashion designer for the industry magnate the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella, however, has a secret alter-ego she’s been forced to keep suppressed for its wildness and unpredictability: Cruella.
Maleficent didn’t look to change Sleeping Beauty (1959) as much as simply take on a different perspective and show how such a shift can have a profound difference in how you see a story. It was a rather refreshing way to rehash the same material yet provide some meaningful commentary on how history chooses villains. Cruella on the other hand, takes on a much more different tack. Cruella is more of a reimagination of the character rather than a prequel or a closely tied property. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara use the 101 Dalmatians IP as base and springboard of sorts to tell their own story. In fact, as the film went on, you began to see the necessary winks and linkages to the source material as the weakest and more unnecessary portions.
As such, Cruella feels more comparable to Joker, in that it is simply taking on an IP to sell its idea but could easily be a standalone story with nothing to do with the claimed universe. Gillespie brings his wit and style to the film, providing a complexity to the character of Cruella/Estella that made his work on I, Tonya (2017) so intriguing. Certainly, Gillespie has much fun with the camera, providing long tracking shots that give off the sense of being a zooming fly withing every scene. This gives the film a signature style and tone that differentiates it from the typical Disney blockbuster that had drowned out many other creative voices.
The filmmakers place the character of Estella in 1970s London, a particular time when the counterculture and punk movements were stirring. This is ingrained into the plot, with Estella working under a legacy artistic industry, but secretly having a rebellious side that is bursting to create and disrupt. Such a clash of incumbent elitists, encapsulated by the Baroness, and the young and raucous upstarts, embodied by Cruella, make for a rather intriguing foil. Gillespie aids in situating his film in this historical cultural moment with another killer soundtrack full of 70s hits from British bands of the time.
What surprised me most about Cruella was how unabashedly it seemed to gear itself to be a character piece. Disney blockbusters usually focus on plot and set pieces to entertain and fill their runtime, yet Tony McNamara and Dana Fox have many moments of quiet contemplation and reflection that seemed out of place in such a film. They prove to be key ingredients in crafting a winning arc for Estella eventually becoming Cruella. However, the screenwriters still can’t fend off the pull of having a blockbuster plot, and as such the beginning and end of the film prove to give in to more melodramatic tendencies that slightly rebuff the quieter character work from before. McNamara and Fox also slowdown and revel in their character work a bit too much, so that there are various redundant sequences proving the same point or motivation for a character, which could have sufficed with a single scene.
All of these bets for a character piece hidden in a melodrama wouldn’t have worked without the proper casting, however. Whoever took the mantle of Cruella had to follow-up on the fantastic live-action performance from Glenn Close (who is also an executive producer on Cruella) in 101 Dalmatians (1996). Stone is more than up to the task, somehow amazing me yet again with her overwhelming dedication to a role that could have easily been a business-as-usual paycheck for her. Stone digs deep into her character, staving off the maniacal twinge from Close, for a more intimate portrayal. Such is the strength of her performance that many of her scenes are done in one continuous take. Thompson is also delicious in her villainous role (heavily inspired from Meryl Streep’s in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)), where she is clearly having so much fun it becomes contagious to viewers. Amongst other standouts is Paul Walter Hauser as one of Estella’s friends and future henchmen Horace, who proves to be a winning comic relief in his every scene (with an exaggerated Cockney accent included).
In the end, Cruella proved to be a delightful surprise for me. I had low expectations for the rehash of this material, but as always, it doesn’t matter what the story is, but who is telling it and how it’s told. The film still isn’t able to shake off the shackles of a melodramatic blockbuster and the filmmakers wander around redundantly in some sequences, but the focus on character and the winning performances proves to be enough to make Cruella a hearty recommendation.