“Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will…”. This ditty in Disney’s 1961 animation 101 Dalmations leaves little room for nuance as it introduced one of its most enduring villains. Whether hand drawn, or in the form of Glenn Glose’s 90s portrayals, Cruella de Vil is a narcissistic, psychotic baddie whose main goal is to skin puppies for a coat.
It was deemed strange, then, when it was announced that Emma Stone would be starring in a prequel focusing on the character’s early days. Disney had achieved some success with Maleficent, which retconned Sleeping Beauty’s story into something a bit more sympathetic to the antagonist. However, Cruella is different. To make her sympathetic would surely mean stripping away a lot of the character’s appeal, and of course there’s the question that haunts any prequel – do we really need to know how a villain became so villainous?
I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie knows something about telling the story of a hated figure. He takes us back to the 1960s, where a young, brilliant child called Estella can’t seem to suppress a dark side, which her mother calls Cruella. Following a tragic accident, Estella finds herself orphaned and takes up a life of crime in London. Ten years later, an adult Estella (Stone) lives off her wits with partners in crime Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), but never gave up on her dream of being a fashion designer.
She gets a big break when she accidentally catches the eye of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the head of a prestigious fashion house who is as vindictive as she is brilliant. However, as the pressures of her new career and revelations from the past come to light, Cruella begins to surface and create a whole lot of trouble.
Set primarily in the 70s, Gillespie puts together a chic film with jaw-dropping costumes and a soundtrack that includes everything from Nina Simone and Dusty Springfield to Iggy Pop and The Clash. As she glides around in a couture dreamland, two very clear sides of our lead’s personality are created – Estella and Cruella. Estella’s journey helps explain how we got to the infamous Disney villain, creating explanations for her behaviour, but not excuses. It’s clever, but makes the first hour drag a little as you wait for the fun to begin. The trio’s schemes are repetitive, and the exposition occasionally throttling. Even Stone seems to acknowledge it – “there’s lots more bad things coming, I promise” she says in her semi-regular narration.
At around the hour mark she walks into her secret base as the character we recognise, ready to fulfil that promise. It’s a fabulous moment that picks up the pace. Stone has much more fun as Cruella than she did as Estella, and so do we. The filmmakers seem to get the message that we’d rather laugh with a villain than cry with a victim, and so while there is some depth added to her story, there are enough delightfully evil moments to sustain the audience.
The plot is a bit muddled, with obvious influences that are never fully realised. When it works, though, it’s a delight, combining Gillespie’s visual flair with Stone’s endless charm. Sequences such as Cruella’s publicity stunts are chaotic and utterly gorgeous, with the Oscar winner giving it everything as she throws out wonderful one liners (“I’d like to remind you that I’m doing this all in heels”).
Thompson is equally brilliant, channelling some Miranda Priestly-like menace, but with just a suggestion of silliness that makes it fun. She can barely contain her glee as she orders around a busy design floor and dismisses Estella as a “grubby girl”. She’s perfect for this movie, and provides a platform for Stone to shine.
Elsewhere, Fry and Hauser are sweet and funny as Cruella’s lackies (although Hauser’s cockney accent is a bit Mary Poppins). Jon McCrea is a breath of fresh air as Artie, a genderfluid designer Cruella falls in with; while there’s no official coming out, the character is a solid example of how to present an unambiguously Queer presence in a mainstream film without resorting to stereotypes. Mark Strong is present as The Baroness’ right-hand man, a role that feels a bit slight for someone of his stature.
Cruella wanders somewhat, but resists the temptation to rewrite history and make its anti-hero sympathetic. Instead, we have a kind of family friendly Joker – a retro tale of a misfit searching for identity, before giving into the madness. Did we need to know how Cruella became such a devil? Probably not. Then again, darlings, it was a lot of fun.
Cruella is released in cinemas and on Disney+ Premium Access from 28 May.