How do you solve a problem like Cruella? Disney’s dastardly, Dalmation-napping designer doesn’t seem a natural fit for a family-friendly, live-action origin story. Yet this witty, zesty, high-energy prequel succeeds by creating its own wild world - one in which we follow Cruella on a darkly comic quest from cradle to catwalk.
Bursting with punky visual style, the movie drops Emma Stone’s thieving orphaned urchin Estella into ’70s London’s stuffy high-fashion circles, scrabbling to swap toilet-cleaning in Liberty’s for creating outrageous Alexander McQueen-style ensembles. Before long, she’s taken on by Emma Thompson’s hilariously terrifying queen of couture, the Baroness. But Estella’s passion for fashion becomes a hunger for vengeance on discovering that the Baroness stole her precious family heirloom.
Director Craig Gillespie amps up the fun furiously here, having Stone let rip as ‘Cruella’, Estella’s arrogant alter ego. Now a monochrome-haired fashion prankster, she embarks on an Ocean’s 8-style caper to steal back the jewel from the Baroness’ charity ball. A fiery frock ignites; twisted secrets begin to unravel.
As he did in the pitch-black biopic I, Tonya, Gillespie adroitly solves the problem of his unlikeable heroine by pitting her against a downright monster. Stone makes Cruella an audacious and appealing thief, whose childhood trauma fuels her obsession, bolstered by her long-suffering grifting ‘family’ Horace and Jasper (slyly funny turns from Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser).
But Emma Thompson’s ruthless reptile of a baroness commits grand larceny by stealing every scene. Fuelled by scripter Tony McNamara’s deadpan dialogue, the stone-cold baddie deploys merciless cunning and killer wit as unstoppable weapons.
As Cruella’s fashion feud with the Baroness ramps up into wild public antics, the film’s eye-poppingly spectacular costumes (a giant skirt ‘trap’, a trick frock-train) reflect her riskiness, conjuring a Harley Quinn-like pseudo-villainess vibe.
But though it’s dark for a Disney, this edgy, dog-loving escapade (check out Winky the criminal chihuahua) is no junior Joker; older kids will love its dash and daring. True, like Cruella, it does take things a bit too far. It’s too long, and too in love with its twist-on-twist plot and myriad, Scorsesian musical montages, comprising crisply edited scams and stunts propelled by the Rolling Stones, The Stooges, and Blondie. But it’s hands-down Disney’s best and punchiest prequel yet, one whose playful perils make for a deliciously rowdy ride.
Cruella reaches cinemas and Disney Plus via Premiere Access on May 28. You can also read about the making of Cruella, including our interview with Emma Stone, here.