Director – Craig Gillespie – 2020 – US, UK – Cert. 12a – 134m
A 101 Dalmatians prequel. How a girl named Estella unleashed her darker personality of Cruella de Vil – in cinemas from Friday, May 28th
Disney’s project of mining their pantheon of animated classics for live action feature material continues. Here it’s the turn of Cruella de Vil, the villain from 101 Dalmatians (Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, 1961), and a very clever reimagination it is too. It commences with her birth and cleverly conceals certain significant details of her upbringing only to reveal them at the tale’s climax and give everything that went before a completely new spin.
Estella (Tipper Siefert-Cleveland) is the daughter of Catherine (Emily Beecham). Befriended at school by Anita Darling (Florisa Kamara) but picked on by bullies, Estella gives as good as she gets, fights back and gets expelled for figuratively blotting her copybook.
So her mother pays a visit to former employer the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) seeking help. But thanks to Estella’s refusal to do as she’s told and stay in the car and her dog Buddy’s strikingly similar refusal to obey Estella this plan goes fatally wrong. Not only is her mother killed, but Estella loses the family heirloom, a necklace, given to her in the car by her mother for safe keeping. This necklace will turn out to have considerable significance.
The orphaned Estella moves to near London’s Regent’s Park as she and her mother had planned where she falls in with low life thieves Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald) and their diminutive dog Wink. After years of working with her as criminal partner, the grown Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) fix up the grown Estella (Emma Stone) with a dream job at Liberty’s department store starting at the bottom. The dream turns out something of a nightmare in which she barely given any task beyond cleaning the loos until the night she drunkenly redesigns a window display and comes to the attention of the visiting Baroness, who promptly hires her as a designer.
This is only the start of Estella’s problems since the Baroness uses people then discards them when they no longer serve her purposes. However, Estella has a more ruthless side: a second personality, Cruella, who after discovering that the Baroness has Estella’s mother’s necklace takes on the Baroness to beat her at her own game by outdoing her haute couture events in serial, guerilla fashion happenings and kidnapping her three vicious dalmatians after one of them swallows the necklace Cruella has attempted to steal back.
Cruella is aided by Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), now a gossip columnist – who switches from covering the Baroness to promoting her old school friend – and small fashion shop owner Artie (John McCrea) who helps realise Cruella’s many fashion designs. She later finds help in an unexpected quarter in the Baroness’s long-serving and trusted right hand man John the Valet (Mark Strong) who turns out to have more to him than initially meets the eye.
It’s is a funny mixture of a film made from a script which cleverly and effectively exploits many aspects of Dodie Smith’s novel (The Hundred And One Dalmatians, 1956) and Disney’s own faithful and terrific animation adaptation. Aside from its eponymous villain, these include Cruella’s two sidekicks Jasper and Horace, her ancestral home, her souped up car and reckless driving, not to mention her old school friend Anita and – in a brief don’t walk out the moments the credits roll or you’ll miss it scene – the remaining major characters of 101 Dalmatians and the opening of the Cruella de Vil song.
Odd script or production decisions plague the larger whole. Cruella is born with half and half, black and white hair – which I’d always assumed was something the character had contrived deliberately or had occurred accidentally – sadly no genetic or other explanation is forthcoming. Once the character grows and morphs into Emma Stone, Estella adopts a maroon wig to conceal the black and white mop underneath until she comes out spectacularly as Cruella in full, two-tone head of hair glory.
The cast are mostly good, not least the kids who carry maybe the first third of the film, but the real star here is Emma Thompson as the narcissist Baroness, the true villain of the piece. Cruella has been wronged by accident of social position whereas the Baroness, with a little cunning, has connived herself into a place where she now always gets her own way. Thompson’s extraordinary performance puts her character on a par with the great animated Disney villains of yore as she upstages everyone else in sight.
Things have moved on since Disney’s live action 101 Dalmatians (Stephen Herek, 1996) after the watershed of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) had shown just what was possible with computer-aided creature features. 25 odd years later. we’ve got past being amazed at lifelike animated dogs seamlessly integrated into live action and delivering performances impossible for real canines. Today the dogs are sometimes computer animated and sometimes real dogs – and it’s impossible to spot (no pun intended) the join. Cruella’s dog Buddy and Jasper and Horace’s dog Wink are both resourceful, well-thought-out and highly engaging characters.
The setting of London in the late nineteen seventies allows for an eclectic selection of music on the soundtrack which mixes the punk / new wave styles of the time represented by The Clash / Should I Stay Or Should I Go (1981) and Blondie / One Way Or Another (1978) plus a striking cover of The Stooges / I Wanna Be Your Dog (1969, the Chicago band who were a huge influence on the British punk movement) by cast member John McCrea.
This element could have been exploited far more effectively by emphasising the few female-led bands of the time including X-Ray Spex, The Selector (one of the so-called Two-tone bands who seamlessly mixed black and white musicians) and the group who defied seventies convention by all being women, The Slits (see this documentary). This represents a seriously missed opportunity from the Studio that has so brilliantly marketed its product to young girls (Frozen, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, 2013) in recent years. Oh, well.
Nevertheless, the music collected on Cruella’s soundtrack is striking, ranging from singers from the fifties (Doris Day, Georgia Gibbs), singers and bands from the sixties (Nancy Sinatra, The Rolling Stones) in addition to Blondie, The Clash and a Stooges cover. Director Gillespie clearly possesses a rare knack for sourcing an appropriate song and lyric for a particular scene. So it’s not all bad by any means.
If the whole thing is long at over two hours, there are rewards for those who remain in their seats for the credits. This live action prequel is much better conceived than the 1996 101 Dalmatians reboot – although if you push me, I still prefer the 1961 animated version to either. Not to mention the original book.
Cruella is nominated for Best Costume Design in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars as well as Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Cruella is out in cinemas in the UK from Friday, May 28th.