“Being a genius is one thing. Raising a genius is another.” Or at least, that is the belief Estella (Emma Stone) has of herself growing up in mid-country England. Her single mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham) does her best to make ends meet and to set up a very fashion designing oriented Estella for future success, sending her to a prestigious middle school. Quickly, her take-no-prisoners thinking endears her to few, becoming the target of relentless bullying. Never one to back down, she fights back, eventually being expelled.
While not ideal, this gives daughter and mother a new opportunity to make a life in London, where Estella will need to be anyway if she wishes to realize her dream. Unfortunately, the best laid plan leading to fashion fame becomes upended, finding Estella as a preteen orphan. She finds a new way working with two other orphans in Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) as they embrace a life of petty crime. Her fashion passion manages to be satisfied a bit in creating elaborate getups to assist in their jobs but doing this doesn’t quench her passion. One fated choice incident with “The Baroness” (Emma Thompson), London’s biggest fashion designer and sharp tongue holder, puts Estella on a path to finding herself as Cruella, born bad and a little bit mad.
The easy and immediate comparison since the initial trailer came out for Cruella is that of Joker. Despite not viewing the trailer (yours truly tends to stay very far away from trailers these days preferring to always go in blind if possible), it is easy to see in the first 15 minutes why that comparison holds some water. Honestly, Cruella pulls a lot from similar movies; Deadpool, the Ocean’s trilogy, The Devil Wears Prada, Disney’s own Maleficent, and a flourish of Fast Five can be seen. Outside of the obvious, I’m not sure why an origin prequel to an average 90’s movie that isn’t immortalized like, say, Space Jam, is needed, but, this could definitely be worse.
One thing can almost always be counted on in any film directed by Craig Gillespie. That thing is energy, and to be more specific, a brash energy. Whether helming Lars and the Real Girl, the Fright Night remake, or the snappy I, Tonya, Gillespie gets off on being somewhat unorthodox in his style, embracing aberrant characters enveloped in real world with tints of fantasy. He loves utilizing licensed music to establish a tonal setting, here leaning into 70’s rock staples in building a rebellious air of the new upstart attempting to overthrow the old guard.
Gillespie and his writing team of Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis tackle the endeavor of giving Cruella and co. a weighty and sympathetic backstory. Their success on that front falls in the middle of the spectrum, using Stone as a part-time narrator to provide ethos and a look into her character’s mental makeup; the first fifteen or so minutes are the best in achieving this goal. However, we’re still talking about someone who—eventually—actively skins animals and is a megalomaniac and painting her as a complete antihero doesn’t stick. On another note, Cruella is truly an origin story is every sense of the subgenre. Think of every trope and staple imagined as the clash between Estella and The Baroness takes shape. Chances are, 75% of the main ones are present in this narrative. A two hour and fourteen-minute runtime padded with grandeur ballroom scenes (one of which displays Cruella as an out-of-nowhere super adept hand-to-hand fighter?) and semi-reflective spring fountain soliloquies do make the film drag in areas.
It is hard to hate Cruella too much though, with Stone fully engaged in the lead role. As importantly, akin to Joaquin Phoenix, she makes the role her own instead of trying to channel her predecessor in Glenn Close. Stone is simply having a good time. Her energy is matched by Thompson, playing a stuffy and downright nasty person in power. It is a one-note villainess but one that allows Thompson a lot of color to play within and around that note. Hauser, Fry, and the ageless Mark Strong round out a strong cast in supporting (pun intended) fashion.
Unnecessary? Cruella is that, but we can say the same about a quarter of releases. For what could have a really loose and slack fitting movie, Gillespie, Stone, and Thompson give this origin story a fashionably and fairly fun fit.
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