Review by Sean Boelman
No matter how nostalgic and fun, a majority of the live-action reimaginings of classic Disney properties have felt more like products than actual films (the notable exception being the 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon). However, in recruiting director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) along with writers Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) and Tony McNamara (The Favourite) for Cruella, the studio has finally managed to crack the formula, creating something legitimately unique and genuinely entertaining.
The movie tells an origin story for 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil, following her as a young mover-and-shaker in the London fashion scene. Like a Disney version of The Devil Wears Prada with a bit of a punk edge to it, the film may not exactly be original, but it also feels like it isn’t afraid to do its own thing, unlike so many blockbusters that come out today.
Admittedly, the pacing of the movie is somewhat imperfect. There are a few too many times in which the story pivots and turns back, with each third of the film having a very distinct feel to it. Still, the overall tone of the movie is pretty consistently fun, with a much-welcome emphasis on the camp factor that allows it to tick.
In making Cruella de Vil into an anti-hero, the writers missed an opportunity to turn this into a morally grey tale of good versus evil. Instead, the themes of the film are some of the commonplace Disney ones, like devotion to family. It isn’t shallow, but it also doesn’t take full advantage of the premise.
The most effective part of the script is the character development. Beyond Cruella de Vil being a phenomenally fun character to watch, everyone else in the story is just as cool. The antagonist is ridiculously over-the-top, but in a way that works for a 101 Dalmatians prequel. And the two sidekicks are also very well-done.
Although the ensemble as a whole is great, this really comes down to a battle between Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. Both of them are giving their best, bringing these characters to life in a gloriously showy way. Paul Walter Hauser, Joel Fry, Mark Strong, and Kayvan Novak are all good in the supporting cast, but rightfully bow down to the immense power of the two lead performers.
The other thing that makes this stand out from other Disney reimaginings is that it has a great sense of style. Of course, for a fashion movie, anything less would be disappointing, but Gillespie and crew bring a visual style to the movie that is exaggerated in all the right ways. The soundtrack is great too, containing some of the best choices in years.
Cruella managed to do something that a lot of Disney live-action films aren’t able to do, and that is to feel like it was driven by a genuine creative vision. Hopefully the studio continues to make more of these projects led by the talent involved rather than the IP.
Cruella hits theaters and Disney+ via Premier Access on May 28.
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