Emboldened by Strong Performances and Beautiful Costumes, 'Cruella' Wins all the Style Awards, but Lacks in Substance
Come for the Emmas, stay for the Emmas—everyone wins
The typical villain origin story is quite formulaic: a tragic past, a trigger event that changes everything, and a descent into hate-filled revenge or even madness. While it isn’t a must for us to sympathize with the character—some villains are just irredeemable, full-stop—it’s crucial that their past helps us make sense of why they are the way they are.
Warning: slight spoilers ahead!
Craig Gillespie’s Cruella never explains why the uber stylish 101 Dalmatians antagonist gets into the skinning-puppies-for-coats business—which is strange because it’s the core concept of her villainy.
Estella Miller (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland; later Emma Stone) is a plucky child with a creative streak and a penchant for cruelty. In true Disney fashion, she is orphaned early on, making ends meet through acts of petty thievery alongside street urchins Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). Though her current life has its charms, Estella, who gets a job as a cleaner at the Liberty department store, dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer.
A drunken episode has her remaking a window display to her own liking. This lands her a job with Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the narcissistic head of a prestigious fashion house. The more Estella finds out about the Baroness, the less she admires her. This quickly spools into all-out hatred when the Baroness’ role in Estella’s mom's death is revealed.
Cruella is a visually stunning film on all fronts. Set in 1970s London, the punk revolution is just beginning to take shape, and fashion is at the forefront of it all. From the Baroness’ slinky, sexy Dior-inspired jackets and gowns to Estella’s edgy Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen-esque looks, there’s much to attract the eye. It’s even funner when Estella goes full-on Cruella De Vil, pulling off one stylish stunt after another, each outfit more outlandish than the last. Costume designer Jenny Beavan deserves all the praise that’s being heaped on her—long may she reign.
Story-wise, it’s a darker iteration of The Devil Wears Prada punctuated by Baby Driver-esque stylistics, which isn’t at all a bad thing. The film is at its strongest when it pits the two Emmas against each other in an all-out fashion war, with one viciously clinging to her top spot while the other dreams of usurping her. Stone is never not endearing, and Thompson is a legend. Both Emmas chew the scenery with their portrayals of these cartoonish characters, and it’s truly a delight to see.
However, the film is saddled with the burden of being a villain origin story, and this is where it fails. While not a direct prequel to the 1996 live action film—Emma Stone does not grow up to be Glenn Close—this one makes very little effort to connect the dots between Estella and Cruella. There’s nothing about her that screams ‘animal cruelty;’ and just when we think she’s going for the kill, it’s instantly subverted. Bloated by backstory and a lengthy runtime, the film just doesn’t go there, and we’re left with more questions than answers.
Gillespie’s work is best enjoyed as a standalone film separate from the canon as we know it.
Emma Stone's Cruella is never not endearing.
Here's our key takeaway from Cruella: Come for the Emmas, stay for the Emmas—everyone wins.
All photos courtesy of Disney +, Walt Disney Studios