Despite all feeling quite unnecessary, Cruella somehow manages to be buckets of fun with a tongue planted firmly in cheek, writes Rehana Nurmahi.
“I wonder what the backstory is of that evil lady who likes to skin dogs?” It’s a sentence that not many had said prior to the conception of this film. And yet, Disney has used this low expectation as a blank slate in Cruella, seizing the opportunity for one of their more original live-action films.
Cruella follows the villain of 101 Dalmations, giving her her own Joker-esque origin story. It starts with the young Estella, a unique and brilliant child with a flair for fashion, as well as trouble. Following the death of her mother at the hands of a pack of vicious dalmations (yes, you read that right), Estella finds herself in central London, buddying up with two young thieves, Jasper and Horace. The narrative then jumps 10 years later, where Estella, now a fully-fledged thief, makes her first steps into the world of fashion, only to discover it’s not as glamorous as it seems.
What follows in the remaining two hours is hard to summarise as one particularly thing. It’s a fashion film. It’s a heist movie. It’s a love letter to 70s London. It’s a family melodrama. Cruella is somehow all and none of these things, constantly dangling on the edge of something brilliant, but never quite sticking the landing gracefully.
That being said, it was not lack that caused this film to stumble, rather, excess. It’s packed to the brim with brilliant and fun elements, but the film clearly has never heard the phrase ‘too much of a good thing’. While the dynamic and fast-paced cinematography was visually enticing at first, it soon becomes a case of one too many tracking shots. The soundtrack brilliantly captures the era and the characters, but the frequency of the needle drops means you tire of them quickly; they also mean that Nicholas Britell’s fabulous score never really gets to shine. Its characters and their melodrama are camp and fun, but a ridiculous plot-twist leaves the central rivalry feeling convoluted and overplayed. Every villain, sorry, anti-hero, deserves a good monologue, but when it comes in the form of heavy-handed voiceover usage, it’s not as welcome.
That being said, the film is unafraid to commit to each of these ideas fully, and while the narrative takes itself far too seriously, the actors don’t. In casting actors such as Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Paul Walter Hauser and Mark Strong, flimsy characters on the page become lived-in, larger-than-life roles that are a joy to watch. Stone’s descent into chaos as Estella becomes Cruella is filled with distinct changes in tone and body language, her whole self morphing into the villain we are used to. She takes the extravagance and audacity of both the film’s concept and the London fashion world in her stride. The attempted moments of emotional resonance fall flat, but when the film lets Stone be wild, those were the moments where I couldn’t look away. The same can be said for Thompson, who stars as Baroness von Hellman, a ruthless fashion designer who serves as the primary antagonist.
In addition to the performances, the film is undoubtedly a visual treat. Its punk-rock London aesthetic is charming and well-designed, and everything feels perfectly of the era. However, the biggest gift to the audience comes in the stunning costume design by Jenny Beavan, and hair and make-up styling by Nadia Stacey. A film about fashion will inevitably serve some looks, but what these women have achieved is genuinely outstanding work. Each outfit feels perfectly crafted to that character, and when Cruella gets experimental, every new costume has the audience in awe. A smoky eye make-up look has been done a million times, yet on Stone as Cruella, it feels fresh. To make a woman with two tone hair look good should be hard, even if that woman is Emma Stone, but these two make it look easy.
Ultimately, the film’s flaws make you roll your eyes, but never make you want to leave. It’s immensely watchable, and endlessly fun, even in its sheer ridiculousness. Given that it’s a premise that is entirely unnecessary, the film somehow manages to be buckets of fun, with a tongue firmly in cheek, and a knowing wink to the audience.
In spite of a weak narrative, Cruella is full of fun concepts, amazing fashion, and some strong central performances. It’s great fun, even if it takes itself too seriously, yet never quite hits its mark.
Cruella is out now in cinemas, and is available to watch with Premier Access on Disney+.
Words by Rehana Nurmahi
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