watoday-I never expected to be able to use Disney and satire in the same sentence. Then along came Cruella, Craig Gillespie’s revisionist take on the life of the irrepressibly wicked Cruella de Vil, scourge of the 101 Dalmatians.
Since the studio’s 1961 animated version, there have been two live-action movies about the adventures of the Dalmatians and their nemesis, featuring an appropriately scary Glenn Close, but they were not nearly sharp enough to quash the view that Disney was milking its animated classics yet again with tamer live-action movies elaborating on the same theme.
But lately, the studio has been more inventive, spinning off screenplays that give new life to its most memorable villains. Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie as Snow White’s evil stepmother, was the first to reveal the formula’s potential but Cruella is a lot more fun.
It’s set in a camped-up recreation of England in the 1970s, the era of punk rock, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen and it gives its designers licence to go for broke.
Gillespie, an Australian, is best known for I, Tonya, his gloriously sardonic take on the American ice-skating champion, Tonya Harding, and the scandal that brought her down, and he’s working with another Australian, Tony McNamara, co-writer of The Favourite and creator of The Great, the scabrously funny series about Catherine the Great. This time, McNamara is collaborating with American writer Dana Fox, a specialist in romantic comedy, but it’s the acid in his touch that colours the script’s tone.
Emma Stone, another of The Favourite team, is playing Cruella and her voice-over guides us into the narrative, taking us back to her childhood to explain how her flamboyantly anarchic character was formed.
Estella, we learn, is her real name but she was born bearing Cruella’s trademark – two-tone hair − and when we catch up with her, it’s already got her into a lot of trouble and she’s become the naughtiest girl in the class. To the quiet despair of her sweet-natured mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), she’s eventually expelled and they’re en route to a new life in London when Catherine is killed in circumstances that play a crucial part in Estella’s future life and subsequent adoption of her alter ego.
She makes her own way to London and grows up as a street child in the company of two fellow orphans. By the time the three of them reach adulthood, they have become accomplished pickpockets and cat burglars. But Estella cherishes other ambitions. Entranced by fashion, she wants to become a designer and, after a series of misadventures, she catches the attention of London’s most revered couturier, The Baroness, played by Emma Thompson, delivering a performance pitched well below freezing point.
All is well for a time. But when the inevitable duel begins, Stone’s performance slips into high gear, reaching an entertainingly manic level. There’s a crazed glint in her eye that is more than a match for Thompson’s basilisk stare, and Gillespie’s design department backs her up, laying on a series of set-pieces framed around The Baroness’s fashion shows and the spectacularly successful stunts that Estella employs to upstage them. It’s all accompanied by the judiciously chosen soundtrack of hits with Blondie, The Clash, Queen and The Doors augmenting the heady pace and impact of Gillespie’s direction.
By now, Estella has renamed herself Cruella and become obsessive, bossy and extremely irritating, as far as her friends, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) are concerned. And since they supply the film’s moral compass, we arrive at the film’s pivotal question. If the film is going to recast Cruella’s fearsome reputation in a kinder light, how is it going to explain away her nastier qualities? In particular, there’s her long-held desire to catch the Dalmatians and make coats out of them.
Let’s just say that Gillespie and his team make a fair attempt to furnish an excuse and if they don’t really pull it off, they at least succeed in distracting you. It’s Disney at its most enlightened.