This week, Disney’s live-action Cruella hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access. Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara and directed by Craig Gillespie, it’s a live-action reimagining of one of Disney’s most diabolical villains (seriously, who wants to kill puppies?). Emma Stone stars as a younger version of the titular character and her rise through the fashion world of 1970s counterculture London on her way to becoming the iconic baddie we know from 101 Dalmatians.
In this new take, Cruella was actually born Estella, a young girl with a naughty, mischievous streak a mile wide who nonetheless struggles to keep her Cruella alter-ego in check. Tragedy strikes in childhood and Estella is cast onto the streets, where she meets fellow orphans and petty thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser). For years, this arrangement works, with their little found family living in a derelict, abandoned building and pulling off cons to survive. But Estella dreams of a greater, grander life and when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for the famed fashion house of the Baroness (Emma Thompson) puts her on a collision path with the sociopathic fashion icon, Estella realizes to reach her goals, it will require letting Cruella out to play. But at what cost? Can she balance Cruella’s necessary ruthlessness without losing her soul?
On the surface, Cruella seems like a bit of a risk for Disney. It’s another origin story of a Disney villain in the vein of Maleficent, which was successful enough to warrant a sequel. But it is an entirely different sort of hurdle to get audiences on board with having sympathy for a villain best known for wanting to skin puppies. So does Cruella win one over? Does Disney’s reimagining of the iconic villain help audiences see her in a new light? And how does it stack up against the rest of Disney’s live-action remakes? Read on for three reasons why you should see Cruella in theaters.
1. The Costumes – My God, The COSTUMES
It’s only May, but Cruella may be the most magnificently coiffed and costumed movie of the entire year. Costume designer Jenny Beavan pulled off a magic trick in getting the costumed look of the movie to be haute couture – exactly as one would expect of a movie that spends so much time in the world of fashion – dressed in the gritty punk scene of ’70s London. While eyewear designer Tom Davies and production designer Fiona Crombie also do excellent work, it’s really Beavan whose costumes give Cruella so much of its distinct aesthetic. Just like the flamboyant Cruella, they take center stage, sometimes upstaging the actors themselves.
On her own, adult Estella’s wardrobe is impossibly cool. Berets and cropped jackets and wallet chains meet pencil skirts and striped leggings for an aesthetic that is one part edgy urban punk, one part that cool girl you see at open mic nights, and a dash of glam goth. As Cruella, her costumes are larger than life, from a cascading, layered gown in a waterfall of red topped with a gold chain-draped military jacket to a Hunger Games-like moment in which Cruella’s white hooded cloak burns away to reveal a slinky, crimson red cocktail dress underneath. Even audiences who generally don’t pay much heed to costumes in movies won’t be able to help but notice them; such as the attention they demand as arguably the third co-star of the movie.
2. It Has A Killer Soundtrack
If the visuals are a feast for the eyes, the soundtrack is a feast for the ears. It’s absolutely killer, on par with watching Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time and hearing the classic pop soundtrack James Gunn wove into the movie. In Cruella‘s case, the songs are plucked from the mid-’60s through the ’70s, with a heavy dose of punk rock including The Clash, Blondie, Queen, The Doors, and one excellent, original closing theme from Florence and the Machines. It sets the tone for a truly distinct vibe than we normally get in 1970s-set movies; when the era is evoked, it tends to focus on disco, bellbottoms, and lots of burnt orange – the pop side of the decade. But 1970s London was also the birth of the British punk scene, ushering in a new wave of music that raged against Queen and Crown and a counterculture that lived in black leather, safety pins, and lots of heavy eyeliner. Like Cruella herself, the punk counterculture was an act of rebellion born from the tumultuous and disillusioning 1960s and fueled by a youth movement sick and tired of the establishment. The soundtrack helps to create the effortlessly cool allure of Cruella: brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad.
3. It’s The Best Live-Action Reimagining Disney Has Done Yet
Disney’s live-action remakes have certainly made a lot of money, but they haven’t always been the most creatively taxing endeavors. Even Maleficent, as much of a departure as it was from a well-trod classic Disney tale, still felt like a family-friendly offering with its pastel palette and talking woodland creatures.
Cruella, thankfully, is something entirely different. This is a hard swerve from the usual Disney live-action movies, one that isn’t particularly interested in appealing to anyone below the age of 12. To its credit, there is no softening Cruella’s bad girl vibe or filing down the pointy edges of her personality. It’s a movie for girls – and boys – who, like Cruella, feel like outsiders, who dim their light to fit in, who wish to embrace being exactly who they are. Those who are struggling with identity and self-acceptance will arguably find an inspiring message in Estella’s story of finally accepting that she is who she is, that she’s always been his way inside, and finally living openly not as the meek Estella but as the fabulous, flamboyant, and slightly dangerous Cruella.
That’s not to say Cruella is a perfect film – far from it. At two hours and 14 minutes, it is a bit excessively long, a film that could have cut 20-30 minutes from it without sacrificing much. This is particularly true of the opening scenes of childhood; the film doesn’t truly pick up until the time jump to Estella as an adult. The plot also requires an extreme commitment to maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief at times, with certain aspects never fully explained and certain plot beats feeling incredibly contrived. But Emmas Stone and Thompson are what really make the movie sing, their deliciously diabolical performances as they play off each other hugely entertaining. It’s obvious when an actor is really relishing a role, and both women are clearly having a ball being wicked, their star power the dual pivot on which the entire movie spins. The result is a movie that, like Cruella de Vil herself, has its flaws – but is so damn magnetic you can’t help but be charmed. One can only hope this is the start of Disney allowing its live-action reimaginings to break their mold and be more creative and more adult in concept, rather than an anomaly.
Cruella is in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, May 28.