I’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard Emma Stone was going to play Cruella de Vil for Disney. Surely she was too young for that, and even when I heard that the movie was going to be an origin story for the 101 Dalmatians villain, I still wasn’t much interested. Now I’ve seen Cruella and I’m delighted to report that besides being smarter than it lets on, the film also lets Emma Stone go into high camp mode. I’m so here for it.
We begin with the title character’s voiceover narration stating that she is already dead. The story picks up in 1964, with 12-year-old Estella Miller (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) growing up in the English countryside, where she’s bullied at school for her black-and-white hair. On the frequent occasions when she acts out, her generally supportive mother (Emily Beecham) calls her “Cruella.” After Estella sees Mum killed by a pack of vicious Dalmatians, she makes her way to London and survives on the streets by falling in with two similarly aged pickpockets and con artists named Jasper and Horace (Ziggy Gardner and Joseph MacDonald). Ten years later, she lands her dream job working for London’s most famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). The dream quickly becomes a nightmare because the Baroness is the type of boss who throws furniture at her employees when she’s not taking credit for their work.
What fun it must have been designing costumes for this movie. That job falls to Jenny Beavan, and while her résumé is filled with traditional historical fare like Sense and Sensibility and The King’s Speech, she has a wild side as well, winning an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road. Estella’s art-punk office attire contrasts with her leather dominatrix gear or the David Bowie-inspired look with epaulettes and a dress that’s about 30 square feet of organza. The filmmakers here are clearly immersed in fashion, to the point where the Baroness’ personal assistant (Andrew Leung) is made up to look like Yves St. Laurent, with squarish suits and black plastic-framed glasses. Moreover, the film shows us that Estella is a fashion genius because she works at it, always bent double over her sewing machine or drawing new garments in her sketchpad.
I like the Baroness’ complexity as a villain, a sharp businesswoman who’s willing to give Estella an opportunity that male designers won’t, but who discards people ruthlessly to compete with the men. Her abuse trickles down to Estella, who starts snapping at Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) and calling them idiots. She uses her anger more constructively by bringing Cruella to life as a whole supervillain alter ego, staging Banksy-like publicity stunts at the Baroness’ showings and blasting her boss’ designs as passé. Cruella’s pranks are inventive, too, one with a garbage truck depositing her wearing a garbage dress in front of the Baroness’ atelier and another where customers are lured outside by a punk rock concert where Cruella wears fake Dalmatian fur and sings “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
This is director Craig Gillespie’s follow-up to I, Tonya, and he revels in women behaving badly. Just as with The Favourite (which shares a screenwriter and lead actress with this movie), the slapstick violence here threatens to shade over into real violence, as the Baroness makes more than one serious attempt to kill Cruella. Gillespie manages the tone just right somehow, and he adds some foofy touches like an elegant one-take shot set to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” that tracks through the fancy department store that is Estella’s first workplace until it arrives at her scrubbing the bathroom floor;. Another complicated farcical set piece, with Estella trying to steal back her mother’s necklace from the Baroness at a society ball, is pulled off with great aplomb, especially considering that two dogs and the Baroness’ Dalmatians are all playing separate parts in the scene. Near the end, we see a gravestone whose three-word epitaph has a dark humor worthy of Tim Burton at his best.
I have to mention Paul Walter Hauser here. You wouldn’t think of casting this actor (he’s only 34? How’s that possible?) as a Cockney after he played idiot Americans so vividly in I, Tonya and BlacKkKlansman. Here he is, pilfering scenes here left and right as the slow-witted member of Cruella’s entourage. He’s excellent, but the show belongs to Stone, who is a bracing presence from the moment she first appears, adjusting her red wig in a mirror. We’ve seen actors coast after winning that Oscar, but Stone goes at every role like it’s the one that’s going to finally make her a star. That’s particularly true here, as she hams up her first public appearance as Cruella and fights off the Baroness’ security guards while turning to the onlookers and saying, “I’d like to remind you all that I’m doing this in heels.” Stone is having a grand time, but she doesn’t forget to bring the anguish when Cruella receives shattering news about her past and delivers a monologue to her mother’s spirit about how she tried and failed to be the good little girl her Mum wanted.
That is the heart of this film. What’s the point of a villain’s origin story? In Cruella’s case, it’s this: Maybe you have one of those weird little girls (or boys) who aren’t well-behaved or athletic enough to fit the Disney princess mold and who have bizarre creative visions knocking around in their heads. They won’t see themselves in Moana or Elsa or any of the other recent Disney heroines, but they will see themselves in Cruella de Vil. They’ll see a way they can strive for Cruella’s stated aim: to make art and make trouble. This movie is for them.
Starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, based on Dodie Smith’s novel. Rated PG-13.