CRUELLA Review: She’s Just Getting Started, Darling

“She has made it me or her..and I choose me.”

When the first trailer for Cruella was released, film Twitter wasted very little time in proclaiming the movie to be Joker for girls. Since I always find the idea of saying one film is “just like” another to be perhaps the laziest form of film criticism and incredibly dismissive to both titles being named, I stayed far away from making that analogy. Still there was something different about this claim which I found impossible to ignore. I eventually realized that the reason I couldn’t shake all of the Joker labels being forced upon Cruella was because of the sexist undertone it contained. Maybe it’s a subconscious reaction to the #metoo movement that’s come about in recent years, but there’s something especially sad and telling about the comparison of a story that’s largely about female empowerment being likened to the emergence of a dangerous psychopath out to wreak havoc on society. Unfortunately for the naysayers and skeptics, Cruella does emerge as a story of both 1970s girl power as well as one of the most dark, entertaining efforts Disney has ever put out.

The somewhat plot-heavy Cruella tracks the origins of one of Disney’s most iconic villains. Before she became a name, Cruella was known as Estella (Emma Stone) a lowly orphan living in London and pulling off petty crimes with her two best friends Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry) When she lands an entry-level job at a top fashion house, Estella wastes no time in rising up the ranks and catching the attention of the legendary and feared design maven The Baroness (Emma Thompson), who eventually adopts her as her new protege. When Estella discovers a link between her intimidating boss and her own past, a new attitude and persona begins to take over.

Every bit of marketing for Cruella aims to sell the movie as a wild free-for-all featuring the kind of rebellious punk mentality which ran rampant in 1970s London. While that aspect of the movie rings true, there’s a certain feeling throughout the film that mirrors the darker mood of the country during the time. London in the 70s saw the likes of a deep recession, civil unrest and lack of belief in the monarchy. It’s no wonder that the wild antics of Cruella, Jasper and Horace all seem commonplace in an atmosphere where the old guard still ruled. It’s this more than anything else which makes The Baroness the movie’s villain, Cruella its hero (or anti-hero, rather) and most of the events which take place feel all the more true and justified. Having lived in London myself for the better part of a few years, it never ceased to amaze me just how strong of a hold tradition had over the country as a whole. Cruella realizes this and offers up two seemingly indestructible characters to symbolize the immovable force that is tradition and inevitable coming of modernity. In Cruella, it’s the past trying to hold onto the present as the future threatens to take over, serving as the perfect illustration of one of the country’s most complex facets.

If there is any shared trait that exists between Joker and Cruella, it would have to be the embracing of one’s true nature, signified by both films’ main characters; however, it’s Cruella which really takes the theme as far as it can without second-guessing itself or ever looking back. The movie offers us two alpha females, one which has already achieved the feat of embodying her true self and another on the road to doing the same. The presence of a pair of fleshed out female characters in a film of this scale would be worthy of applause all on its own. However, the way the movie deals with the role of women in the world of Cruella makes it even more of a fascinating watch. Here we see women thriving on their own, operating by their own rules and working to establish themselves as names which cannot be dismissed or forgotten. When Cruella and The Baroness determine that there can only be one victor between the two of them, a fight to the proverbial death ensues with Estella taking on the alter ego of Cruella and becoming the top new designer in the city with the goal of dethroning The Baroness. At its core this is a story of survival. As the tale progresses and gets more bonkers, Cruella becomes a testament to the few self-made women who managed to hold positions of power in an era when it wasn’t necessarily seen as fashionable by the establishment and the desperation to hold onto what they’d accomplished at whatever the cost.

Cruella wouldn’t be Cruella without the two inspired performances at its center. For my money, Stone couldn’t have picked a better role at this stage in her career. As the title character, the actress finds herself in every kind of scene possible throughout the course of the film, from slapstick, to tongue-in-cheek campiness, to melancholy (a later scene sees the character delivering an especially touching monologue to her late mother). She’s so well-matched by Thompson, who channels Joan Crawford in the very best of ways. Seeing her move throughout the film is fascinating as virtually every gesture she makes gives another hint to her character while the humor she carries underneath the surface goes a very long way. Fry beautifully grounds the proceedings as Jasper and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling is a bright presence. Mark Strong may not do much here except escort the movie’s two leading ladies around, but Hauser easily steals every scene he’s in with some of the best comic timing seen from a Disney supporting player in a while.

Director Craig Gillespie has made sure this lavish, handsome affair is ripe with the kind of top notch production qualities that it deserves. The music boasts an eclectic who’s who of classic artists from The Doors to Doris Day, while the costumes are a true feast for the eyes and genuine works of art which will wow even those who are not fashion-inclined. Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s screenplay offers just the right kind of dark comedy, plot turns and pacing that ensures the two hour-plus production never gets boring. When all is said and done however, Cruella feels more like someone else’s story than that of the classic Disney baddie we all remember from childhood. Adequate work is done to link the character with the woman many generations know her to be, but the further the story goes on, the more the elements of past Cruella incarnations feel shoehorned in, suggesting that this dark, yet colorful and telling extravaganza would have soared just as far on its own.

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