Photo | “Cruella” – Gunn Films
“Cruella” is the fabulously fashionable workplace drama I never knew I needed. Emma Stone faces off against Emma Thompson in a bid to be the most buzzed-about fashion designer in London, and it is absolutely divine. Both actresses are at the top of their game, playing women at the top of their game, and their competition is not for love but professional status in their glamorous field of fashion design.
A killer soundtrack — don’t worry, the opportunity to play “Sympathy for the Devil” in a film about someone named “de Vil” was not missed — sets the stage for London in the 1960s, where a little orphan girl named Estrella grows up alongside two street toughs, Horace and Jasper. The trio is cunning and creative, and while Estrella uses her sewing skills to cook up endless disguises for their various cons and grifts, her dream is to have a career as a fashion designer.
Before she was an orphan, Estrella was a little girl with bi-colored hair and a wild contrarian streak that her sweet, quiet mother tried to help her contain, calling her bad behavior the work of an unwelcome alter ego who needed to be ignored. And what name did mom give that awful alter ego who often took over Estrella? Cruella, of course. Also, of course, Estrella’s mom is tragically killed in a freak accident that plays an important part in the plot.
One of the pleasures of our current obsession with “prequels” and “origin stories” is noticing all the little details, easter eggs and callbacks that tie into the stories we knew and loved first. But the pleasures of “Cruella” are almost entirely independent of any of the “101 Dalmatians” films, I’m pleased to report. I don’t think a huge group of vocal “101 Dalmatians” stans cried out to learn why Cruella de Vil hates dogs. There is not a “cannon” to contend with as in “Star Wars” or Marvel lore. “Cruella” was just an excuse to have two formidable actresses camp it up with insane hairdos and sensational outfits. It has more in common with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” than “101 Dalmatians,” and please know that is a very good thing.
When Estrella finally gets her chance to work under the fashion legend Baroness von Hellman (Thompson), her talent and drive get her noticed and she makes some progress in a legitimate profession. But her evil nature plus some awful things she finds out about the Baroness lead her to take her usual, criminal approach as she claws her way to the top. Soon, Cruella emerges, to the chagrin of her sweet and supportive henchmen, who have always taken care of one another even when they were robbing everyone else.
Cruella becomes the talk of the town by showing up to all of the Baroness’s fashion shows and events, upstaging her with her own fabulous presence. At an over-the-top catwalk fashion competition, the costumes appropriately run away with the show. Costume designer Jenny Beavan channeled the elaborate punk spirit of Vivienne Westwood, ensuring Cruella’s scene-stealing gowns are fun and magnificent.
My only complaint is there is a prolonged final act after what feels like the crescendo of Cruella’s punk fashion show in the park, and the film gets a bit long. Overall though, “Cruella” was an unexpected delight, more personal, satisfying and interesting than it had to be. It was a spiky, wacky treat, and as idiosyncratic as the most successful elements were, it had enough pratfalls and gags to have a wider appeal.
“Cruella” is better than the recent live-action remakes of earlier Disney animations because it is merely inspired by the cartoon, not a recreation. Free to tell a new tale, director Craig Gillespie, who also made such unusual films as “I, Tonya” and “Lars and the Real Girl,” has whipped up a really fun misadventure, and it was exciting to see Disney branch out into slightly weirder territory. I wondered what the audience for this quirky, couture “Working Girl” riff would be, but I think that a slightly more sophisticated kid would appreciate, it and it’s nice to have something for an older kid to sink their teeth into. It is a stylish, oddball treat, a wicked and witty study of a talented girl gone wild.
“Cruella” is now playing in all listed multiplex theaters and Nexus Cinema Dining; it is streaming on Disney+ (requires an additional fee).
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