Director Craig Gillespie has given us such gems like Lars and the Real Girl and more recently I, Tonya. His penchant for slipping honest and authentic moments into whimsy and downright absurdity is refreshing and infectious. While Lars and Tonya are the best examples, he has shown his capabilities as a director to connect with his audience on a deeper level.
Cruella being a Disney property does not scream “creative freedom”, but thanks to competent direction, dazzling set design and inspired costumes, there is more than enough in Cruella to leave fans happy and convert a few new ones. In Gillespie’s Cruella, there is such a divergence of themes from the source material that even though we know Cruella grows up and kidnaps a whole bunch of dogs, the story we see shows how a precocious little girl can go from relative innocence to mad and darkly obsessed.
Lead by the ever-magnetic Emma Stone, whose casting alone lends to being objectively biased in liking the anti-hero. So, is this really a sympathy piece? Or is something deeper at play?
The story follows Estella, from birth until ultimately embracing her dark side. Without ruining anything for anyone, it becomes very obvious why she has such a hatred of Dalmatians. Stone’s performance is engaging and her fellow co-stars are absolutely spot on. Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell) and Joel Fry (In the Earth) play Horace and Jasper respectively, with Hauser once again stealing just about every scene he’s in. The two Emmas, Stone and Thompson are both having a lot of fun with their roles, it was fun to see them game for wearing the most outlandish and intricate costumes. A completely wasted Mark Strong being the only misstep in casting, but he is still fun to watch.
The beauty, and what makes Cruella really tick is in the cast. Colorful enough to be Disney characters, but written well enough to stay with you well after the credits roll. A commitment to the story is always worthy of praise, and at times, maybe little too much. The madcap capers perpetrated by Estella and her merry band of misfits is silly and playful. But this dark tale goes into a few areas that a good little Disney has no business going. Murder, revenge, chaos, and anarchy are some pretty dark and heavy subjects for a family film, but then again, this live-action film is rated PG-13, so maybe Disney knows it isn’t for the “whole” family. As Estella navigates her way through the fashion industry and begins to embrace Cruella she becomes more and more obsessed with seeking revenge. Again, her actions, especially towards her closest friends is reprehensible, there is nothing about her pursuit that is admirable, so if the world is going to collectively miss the point and continue to root for the bad guy, is that the filmmaker’s fault? Villains are human, they are flawed and made a series of decisions that led them to who they are now, they were not born evil, they were shaped and molded by life, and we get to see that here. Is it sympathetic? Well in order to become a villain some pretty messed up stuff has to happen to you, sparking sympathy, but there is a giant leap between that and rooting for them.
If you can make it past the “should I be rooting for the bad guy?” non-argument there is so much about Cruella that is worth your time.
From the absolutely banging soundtrack to the equally banging costume design and the lavish sets, this punk rock prequel is the new benchmark for how entertaining and original a live-action Disney film should be.
3.5 out of 5