Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Disney continues its trend of adapting some of its most successful animated films from the 1940’s to the 90’s. Actually, this one continues the tradition of doing a live-action turn to some of its most memorable villains, specifically female villains. Disney is of course known for its princess fairy tales, but the company is also known for its incredible female villains.
Over the past decade, Disney has been hiring Oscar-nominated or even Oscar-winning actresses to play its iconic or legendary female villains. One of the most successful was Angelina Jolie as the titular character Maleficent (2014), the villain from Sleeping Beauty (1959). This one is a bit different because it takes the female villain from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), which wasn’t a princess fairy tale. There wasn’t anything supernatural about it at all. It was simply about a woman who wanted to steal the puppies of her best friend’s dog. It follows how the dogs escaped the mean woman.
Emma Stone (La La Land and Birdman) stars as that mean woman, before she became so. Her name was Cruella de Vil and in this film, we see her origin story. We even start with the day that she was born, which was in either the late 40’s or early 50’s. We follow her seeing a bit of her childhood and early adulthood, resulting in her getting the name Cruella. As one might guess, Cruella isn’t her birth name. It’s actually Estella. She was born outside of London. She has the unique quality of having natural black-and-white hair, literally one side of her head has black hair and the other side has white hair. She’s always had a brash and sassy attitude and knowledge that she has a talent for fashion design. Her dream is to move to London and become a famous fashion designer.
Emma Thompson (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Love Actually) co-stars as the Baroness, a wealthy and successful fashion designer. She has her own high-class fashion house in downtown London. She’s a vicious, snobbish diva who could be described as a more psychopathic version of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), except she has pet dalmatians, so this film could be called “The Devil Wears Dalmations.” Streep’s character though wasn’t a fashion designer per se. Thompson’s character might be closer to Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in Phantom Thread (2017).
Estella is able to get a job at the Baroness’ fashion house named Liberty of London. She starts out cleaning floors but then rises to being one of the Baroness’ designers. She does so in a manner similar to that of Mannequin (1987). Estella looks up to the Baroness and respects her as a fashion icon. Her role here starts out akin to Stone’s role in the Oscar-winning film The Favourite (2018). However, things change and a rivalry develops between the two, much in the way a rivalry develops in that 2018 period piece.
Joel Fry (Love Wedding Repeat and Yesterday) also co-stars as Jasper, the best friend to Estella once she moves to London. It’s implied that Jasper is an orphan who is homeless. When he’s begging on the streets for change, he’s also working as a pickpocket who steals from wealthy pedestrians. He’s also managed to commandeer an abandoned loft in a warehouse, as opposed to just sleeping on the streets. He more than befriends her. He basically defends and takes care of her and becomes like family to her. His relationship with Estella goes to the heart of the film. Their relationship never is romantic. It’s purely platonic but strong.
His relationship though forms an undercurrent of tension and drama because the film becomes a struggle over Estella’s identity. The more time that Estella spends with the Baroness, the more that Estella becomes like the Baroness in terms of personality and psychopathy. The Baroness’ ideology is that in order to succeed or have power one has to be cutthroat and literally a killer who doesn’t care about other people. The tension and drama are that Estella begins to adopt that ideology too. Yet, Jasper is horrified or at least worried that Estella doing so isn’t good or who she really is.
Instead of just being an origin story of showing this woman’s rise to power and villainy as we assume Estella will become Cruella, the film has a bit more fun. Director Craig Gillespie incorporates a great deal of humor, including from the breakout star from Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017), that of Paul Walter Hauser who plays Horace, a fellow friend of Jasper and Estella. Horace’s every moment is funny, including his moments with his one-eyed toy dog named Wink. One of the centerpiece sequences involves Estella, Jasper and Horace pulling off a heist and it was a heist that was more thrilling, more involving and more comedic than a lot of recent heist films like Army of the Dead (2021) and Wrath of Man (2021).
There was also sequence after sequence in the middle of this film where we see Estella evolving into Cruella. At one point, Cruella becomes a persona that Estella becomes at night. She does so basically to crash and seemingly vandalize any event where the Baroness is the headlining act. Estella is like Clark Kent in the daytime, putting on this mild-mannered persona, but at night, she becomes a firebrand, almost like Banksy but set in the fashion world of the 1960’s. The question becomes which of the two personas is the real woman and how far is she willing to go to achieve her ends. There is a subplot involving the death of someone close to Estella and her path to get revenge is a better one than in that of Wrath of Man, as well.
One last aspect worth mentioning is the queer aspect. No one comes out directly as gay or queer in this film, but there were perhaps obvious gay characters. John McCrea plays Artie, the owner of a second-hand shop in London. When Estella walks into his shop, he immediately takes a liking to her. Again, he never says he’s gay and we never see him with a boyfriend or partner, but he’s clearly gender non-conforming. He could almost be described as cross-dressing or in drag. Yet, because it’s never confirmed what his sexuality is, it could be tossed aside as early glam rock. Yes, a good chunk of glam rock stars were LGBTQ like David Bowie but not all. This film doesn’t have any romance, so I can’t knock it for not showing Artie’s romantic interests. The film gives us other instances of obvious drag, which is a positive thing, but Disney still falls short of what I would give credit because we don’t see any same-sex attraction depicted. However, I had a lot of fun with this film and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.
In theaters and Disney Plus.