From a narrative standpoint, Cruella is no less redundant a prequel to 101 Dalmatians than was Maleficent to Sleeping Beauty. The similarities don’t end there. Cruella too opens with childhood tragedy – one which sends another young girl down the path of evil – before segueing to an adulthood brought spectacularly to life by a star on form. Mercifully, this is a far more interesting feature than the former. It’s too long, and occasionally languorous by consequence, but a hoot nonetheless. No puppies are harmed but the soundtrack’s a killer.
Principally, a shift from Walt’s jazzy fifties to the punk rock era of seventies London works wonders for Cruella. It’s an era familiar to director Craig Gillespie, whose last film – I, Tonya – enjoyed a stretch in the same decade. Once again, Gillespie favours the brash, with fast cuts bringing out the best of youthful anarchy. It’s no surprise to learn that both films share an editor in Tatiana S. Riegel. Expositionary voiceovers and musical cues prove rather on the nose in this case but come as part of the package.
Whereas Maleficent bored with a weak attempt to recast its leading villainess as fundamentally good, Cruella takes a refreshingly reversed approach. Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), as she’s named at birth, is a trouble maker from the off. Perhaps not irredeemable but the sort of child genius who really does believe that a high IQ gives her carte blanche to do whatever the hell she wants. Emily Beecham can but simper as Estella’s long suffering mother, Catherine, and instructs her to suppress her darkness, the side of her she names Cruella. No mean feat. Even as a child, Estella refuses to follow patterns when making miniature clothing sets for her dolls. Think Jekyll & Hyde meets Dolce & Gabbana.
Then, just as Estella promises to be good, her mother is thrust off a cliff by a trio of vicious Dalmatians. Yep, that’s your origins story. Fleeing the scene, Estella winds up on the streets of London and in the company of street urchins Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald). They’re the pair who will one day serve as Cruella’s henchmen. Here, they grow into a gangly Joel Fry and rib tickling Paul Walter Hauser: ‘You just blew my mind!’ Emma Stone steps forth as Estella and the scenery chewing begins. Following a surprising showcase for Stone’s effective British accent in The Favourite, here the Oscar winning star hits pastiche with vocal intonations like you’ve never heard before. She’s loving it.
Were it not for the late arrival of Emma Thompson, Stone would own Cruella without rival. Thompson plays the stupendously vile Baroness von Hellman, a vein narcissist and the bees knees of contemporary London fashion. She too is superb, wielding a taser in one scene like it’s Audrey Hepburn’s cigarette holder: ‘Get your dried-up desiccated little brain working!’ It is when the Baroness spots potential in Estella, and elevates her from a wretched cleaning post at Liberty to designer par excellence that the fun really begins. A script by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara snowballs henceforth, with increasingly apparent tributes to The Devil Wears Prada and many a heist picture of days past. It’s a tonal hotpot and disaster for fans of consistent pacing but when Cruella flies, she soars.
Memorable set pieces – from an explosion of hatching moths to a fiery costume change – vie for the eye with increasing extravagance, each brought to life with bursts of Tina Turner, the Bee Gees and Blondie. Dazzling gowns and get ups are upstaged only by Nadia Stacey’s (another alumnus of The Favourite) uproarious approach to hair and make up. The invention and verve on display here keep even the most slack of stretches in the film rolling along nicely. Beneath such shine, logic is not Cruella’s strong point. There is much here that would not stand up to scrutiny. And there’s plenty excess minutes to scrutinise. No matter, doesn’t it look fabulous!