You’ve got to hand it to the Mouse. Disney can make a princess out of anyone, even one of its legendary villains, Cruella De Ville, a kind of hard-hearted Snow White whose Evil Queen is her designer boss, the Baroness. For those of us who grew up loathing that simpering, eventually sleeping princess, this is more like it: a princess who gives as good as she gets.
In this origin tale, helmed, appropriately enough by I, Tonya‘s Craig Gillespie, it is not as if Estella, the little girl born with the black/white hair that would become one of her trademarks, has much choice but to develop an acid tongue, a mean streak, and the thickest of hides. In the sleepy village where Estella lives until the age 12 and develops into a proto-punk (in 1964, yet!), she is relentlessly bullied. That only changes when the orphaned girl gets to London and joins up with similarly destitute, abandoned boys, two scalawags who could easily be mistaken as runaways from a road company of Oliver!. By the time she’s grown up and played by Emma Stone, Estella and her brothers from other mothers, Jasper (Joel Fry, a charmer) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, sweetly dimwitted), have mastered petty crime.
But Estella is also a girl who is handy with a thread and needle and endlessly creative, which eventually brings her to the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), one of the world’s top designers. The acid-tongued couturier, who depends on an army of brow-beaten assistants to create the illusion of her genius, holds everyone around her in dismissive contempt but somehow takes a shine to Estella.
The young woman delights in the attention – until she discover exactly how monstrous The Baroness really is. Estella births Cruella in response and becomes London’s latest designer out to make her mark on ’70s London not just with outrageous outfits that marry the punk rock aesthetic to glamor but also by taking down The Duchess. A series of escalating publicity stunts and pranks serve to up the profile of the young upstart while driving her nemesis to distraction.
The parallels between The Baroness and the Evil Queen and Snow White and Estella/Cruella are delicious. Like Evil Queen, The Baroness is obsessed with being the best and will not accept that her status could be usurped by a sassy up-and-comer. Like Snow White, Estella/Cruella is the brilliance that overshadows her older rival. Only instead of being the sweet picture of demure beauty and amiability a la Snow White, Estella/Cruella is a vibrant, witty, fetching, and, yes, cruel, demon. Stone and Thompson chew the scenery with gusto, both actors clearly having a ball with their larger-than-life bad-girl characters.
As might be expected, production values are off-the-charts high, from Fiona Crombie’s lush production design of The Baroness’s top-drawer atelier and opulent mansion (and their opposite, Estella and her confederates’ seedy garret) to the vivid makeup and hair designs that transform Estella into Cruella. Nicolas Karakatsanis’s cinematography, shot in two different formats, 65mm to further embellish The Baroness’ luxurious surroundings and the more standard 35 to reflect Estella’s more hardscrabble lifestyle, further enhances the contrasts between the women’s worlds.
A special shout-out must go to costume designer Jenny Beavan, who makes a case for her 11th Oscar nomination with her sublime creations. Beavan has won the statue twice, for the genteel period piece A Room with a View (1987) and the raucous, futuristic Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Here, she is given ample room to play between the elegance of The Baroness’ creations and the in-your-face glam of Cruella’s. Plus, she gets a bonus in designing the outfits for two quite different costume balls. Beavan responds with a master class in style, both high and low, and design.
Cruella does have its downsides. For one thing, it is slack. At 134 minutes, it is sometimes labored, something more judicious editing would have cured. For another, Emma Stone is a charming actress, but even she can’t cut the ice on a vindicative princess who occasionally turns her talons on Jasper and Horace, the two people who love her unconditionally and support her at every turn. Those moments feel false. Cruella is a face she presents to the outside world, not to those very few people who are nearest and dearest.
Finally, is this really the origin story of someone who will grow into a middle-aged harridan who will want to make coats from puppies? Frankly, Cruella is unconvincing on this point. Say what you like about Estella/Cruella, she loves dogs. A coat from puppies? Nah. A coat from people – maybe.