Disney’s Latest Live-Action Remake is a Delightfully De-Vil-ish Surprise That Showcases the Studio at its Best

by Hassan Ilahi

Is it just me or has Disney lost its magic by running out of ideas for movies?

Over this recent decade, the company has developed a problematic tendency of adapting animated cartoons into live-action features. While these remakes have become successful box-office sensations, their dearth of creativity has attracted criticism. For instance, 2019’s The Lion King fell short of the original by merely imitating its roar. To be fair, one could propose that these movies offer nostalgic appeal by allowing movie-goers to revisit precious classics from their childhood. However, these remakes pale in comparison to their predecessors. As the purr-poseless The Lion King signaled, cartoon claw-ssics with fur-midable tails are best left unscarred. Nonetheless, this hasn’t discouraged Disney from recycling classics for profits.

For a company amidst creative stagnation, Disney’s latest film Cruella is a delightfully de-Vil-ish surprise that defies expectations. A bold, darkly comic and wickedly entertaining prequel, it offers a revisionist interpretation of the supervillain’s backstory. With his seventh feature, director Craig Gillepsie utilizes a punk-rock style to reimagine Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmations antagonist. Packed with atmospheric cinematography, exquisite production design and unforgettable performances, it’s one of Disney’s finest remakes. Although Cruella is undeniably entertaining, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It’s overlong, and lacks strong character development. Nevertheless, it offers enthralling entertainment that will satisfy the studio’s fanbase.

Set in 1970’s London, Cruella follows a fashion designer whose cruel streak leads her towards becoming a supervillain. Emma Stone stars in the titular role as Estella, a mischievous thief that dreams of becoming a famous fashionista. When she’s employed by distinguished fashion icon Baroness (Emma Thompson), Estella’s wishes are fulfilled. However, what begins as friendship soon turns competitive when the women tussle for fame. As Estella embraces her alter-ego Cruella, she seeks revenge against employers.

Writer/director Craig Gillepsie is no stranger to themes of competition. Ever since he attained worldwide recognition with I, Tonya in 2017, Gillepsie has transformed into a fantastic Australian filmmaker. His previous feature I, Tonya offered a provocative glimpse at the challenges experienced by controversial ice skater Tonya Harding. With Cruella, however, Gillepsie has crafted his first Disney live-action adaptation. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to reinterpret the background behind the diabolical supervillain from 1964’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but he pulls it off successfully. Using captivating cinematography, Gillepsie draws viewers into the life of an ambitious fashion designer that seeks success in 1970’s London. Working alongside cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Gillepsie deftly uses changes in camerawork to delineate differences in style between rival fashionistas. For example, steadicam shots convey the Baroness’ serene elegance. In marked contrast, shaky hand-held cameras capture Cruella’s chaotic style as a fashion designer. Gillepsie excels at reimagining Disney’s dalmation-killing supervillain, and his latest feature is worth watching on Disney+ for this reason alone.

If backstories behind renowned villains do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Cruella. Gillepsie excels at utilizing original costumes to demonstrate Cruella’s descent into insanity. When constructing outfits for supervillains, it’s often easy for designers to simply imitate or impersonate appearances of previous iterations. Thankfully, though, Gillepsie wisely avoids imitating Cruella’s cartoon clothes. Accompanied by costume-designer Jenny Beavan, Gillepsie successfully uses unique outfits to display Cruella’s growth throughout the film from an outsider into a formidable fashionista. For instance, costumes play an important role in demonstrating character evolution in the scene where Cruella makes a stylish entrance at the Baroness’ party. During this memorable scene, Cruella strives to make a statement by wearing a plain dress that erupts into flames. It’s hard to not gape in awe as Cruella’s dress catches fire in a flashy style reminiscent of 2019’s Joker. From a company that commonly overuses nostalgia, it’s refreshing to see a remake that deviates from its predecessor through costumes. Furthermore, Nicolas Britell’s score merits praise. Britell’s decision to integrate 1970’s classic-rock songs into the film is risky, but it works tremendously. It gives the movie energy and momentum that’s missing from the animated iteration. Through extraordinary production values, Gillespie creates a Batman-like world.

It’s hard to not admire astonishing performances.

Emma Stone delivers one of the best performances of her career as Cruella de Vil. Following her Oscar-winning turn in 2016’s La La Land, Stone has proven to be an exceptional actress with flair for playing sweet-natured heroines. With Cruella, however, she takes on her first villainous role to date. It’s not easy to interject sympathy into a villain that kills dogs. It’s a tricky role that requires the actress to achieve a fine balance between being empathetic and reprehensible. However, Stone pulls it off masterfully. With captivating expressions, she captures the derangement, mischievousness and resentments of a fashion designer that seeks to avenge her mother’s death. It’s an unforgettable performance that modernizes the supervillain.

Emma Thompson is excellent in the role of a self-centered fashion tycoon that shows little concerns for her employees. Taking inspiration from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Thompson creates a memorable fashion designer. As the Baroness, Thompson showcases knack for communicating fashion moguls’ personalities through her expressions. Whether she’s publicly humiliating Estella for her unacceptable designs of dresses or asserting control over assistants, Thompson expertly uses snarky expressions to capture narcissistic personas of fashionistas. It’s a terrific performance from Britain’s greatest actress.

The final, most unforgettable standout is Paul Walter Hauser. As Cruella’s henchman Horace, he’s uproariously hilarious.

Despite its fantastic performances, however, it’s unfortunate that Cruella doesn’t entirely do justice to the dog-napping supervillain of its superior animated source material. Accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s lively score, Gillepsie keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during its first hour. However, once the film enters its finale, it starts to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. Moreover, the film is undermined by dearth of character development. Gillepsie’s decision to humanize the puppy-killing villain by giving her a backstory is bold and inventive. However, it doesn’t entirely work. For instance, we’re hardly given valid reasons to care about Cruella beyond the fact that she’s an orphan that’s rejected by society. Whereas this sympathy-for-villain approach worked for a movie like Joker, it clashes with Cruella’s inhumane depiction in the original animated iteration. Consequently, Cruella isn’t nearly on par with Disney’s greatest live-action adaptations.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that Cruella’s fashionable fur coats aren’t tailored towards everyone. Unlike Disney’s other live-action remakes, the film’s dark themes aren’t meant for children. The film tackles grave topics such as bullying, workplace harassment and trauma that may upset children. Kids that are easily triggered by dog violence won’t enjoy the movie. Thus, Cruella won’t please everyone.

Ultimately, Cruella is a satisfactory villain reboot with biting ambitions that often exceed its leashlike grasp. A provocative but convoluted prequel, it proves Disney hasn’t lost its creativity. If its anti-heroine could possibly pitch advice to Disney, she would likely encourage darling to unleash its darkness by using risks rather than nostalgia to be successful in future endeavors.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+