When Disney announced this release, my anticipation barely registered on the ‘need to see’ scale. I mean, ho hum, how good can an origin story for a two-dimensional Disney character be, anyway?
The answer is: very good indeed. It only takes ten minutes or so to convince me that this is, in fact, a brilliant notion – and indeed, Cruella is genuinely the most fun I’ve had in a cinema since the reopening of these hallowed portals (admittedly, it’s only been a few weeks). While it might not fully explain why a seemingly lovely woman would turn into a puppy-hating psychopath, it’s nonetheless an absolute delight from start to finish, featuring eye-popping haute couture, a superb ensemble cast and all backed up by a soundtrack of stone cold 60s classics from the Stones to the Zombies. What’s not to like?
Our story begins in the 1950s, with the birth of Estella Miller, a child with shockingly distinctive hair. It’s not long before she’s grown a bit and is making a name for herself at school – as a cocksure, arrogant rebel with total self-belief. She never fails to fuel the ire of her teachers and fellow pupils. Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) harbours a burning ambition. She longs to be a fashion designer just like her idol, the infamous Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella also has a dark side – a character her Mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), calls ‘Cruella,’ and who she insists must be kept hidden from the world. However, when her daughter is thrown out of yet another school, Catherine resolves to take her to London where she’ll have a chance of achieving the career she longs for. But the two of them must first make a brief stop en route…
Then, in a bizarre twist of fate – one that I really can’t give away – Estella is orphaned and she falls in with a couple of artful dodgers, who introduce her to a life of crime in the big city and who also provide her with some much-needed companionship. Before very long (the film seems to hurtle along at a breathless pace), it’s the swinging 60s. Estella has grown up to be Emma Stone and her friends Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) have somehow managed to wangle her at job at Liberty’s of London… okay, so she’s only cleaning toilets, but you have to start from the bottom, right?
And then her talents come to the attention of The Baroness herself and Estella’s life takes a massive step up. Now she is being called upon to create a whole series of stunning designs for the The Baroness’s fashion house, designs that her new employer is only too happy to take all the credit for.
But how long before the dark persona hidden inside this ambitious young woman comes clawing her way back to the surface, intent on grabbing the limelight for herself?
What ensues is a delicious war between Cruella and The Baroness. Stone is effortlessly cool both as Cruella and as her slightly more subdued other half, handling an upper crust English accent with aplomb and looking like she’s setting the screen ablaze with the merest smirk. Thompson is wonderfully evil, making Meryl Streep’s turn in the inferior The Devil Wears Prada (a film that Cruella shares some DNA with) look positively cuddly by comparison. Thompson is also very funny in the role.
As the decade hurtles towards the 70s, so the fashions become ever more trashy (bin lorry chic anyone?) and the cinematic jukebox offers us the likes of The Clash and ELO. Seriously, you’ll be dancing in your seat. All we need is a big, brash conclusion and, happily, director Craig Gillespie dutifully gives us one, pulling all the final strands together in great style.
Oh, and don’t get up too soon. There’s a gentle post-credits coda that features a sly nod to Disney’s 1961 original.
I really had the lowest possible expectations for Cruella, but I’m happy to admit that I was wrong.
This film is a blast.