Review of Craig Gillespie’s Cruella
Cruella (2021). Directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong.
Cruella is an enigma. Part of Disney’s string of live action productions re-imagining existing animated property, Craig Gillespie’s film exists alongside such entries as Maleficent, Cinderella and Mulan and will be joined by The Little Mermaid and Tinkerbell in the future. Maleficent is particularly notable here, since it rewrites film history as established by Disney itself, putting the original Sleeping Beauty-villain’s story at the center instead of one of the company’s princesses. In comes Cruella, which, in a surprising twist, is the grown-up Disney film we have been waiting for: a tale of self-empowerment that challenges us to make sense of why people are what they are, and how the villains among us have their own story to tell, in which they see themselves as the protagonist with valid reasons for acting how they act.
It is hard to say where to exactly locate Gillespie’s film in comparison to previous films featuring Cruella de Vil: This year’s version is neither a prequel nor a spin-off but rather stands as its own re-imagined story. It is also clear that the 2021 version of Cruella (played by Emma Stone) has some similarities with previous incarnations of the character while also being decisively different. Set in London during the 70s punk rock era, Cruella presents a young, orphaned Cruella de Vil, going by the name Estella, trying to find success in the English capital’s fashion industry instead of the diva heiress the audience is familiar with. A fashion designer ingenue and successful small-time crook, Cruella finds herself as part of a motley crew with familiar characters from the company’s previous 101 Dalmatians stories, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), while also having a reputable job in the haute couture company run by The Baroness (Emma Thompson).
Branded by the internet as the film no one asked for and marketed as a life action treatment of the fur wearing, dalmatian-hunting, notoriously bad driver, and eccentric villain, previously brought to life by Glenn Close, Cruella surprises because it refuses to play by the rules: no musical numbers, no cutesy love story, no excessive kiddie jokes. What is rather striking about the film is that it is not a live action treatment that wants to atone a previously villainous character. It doesn’t make for good children’s entertainment either. Instead, it revels in its main character’s flaws while also insisting on not just explaining away her mischievousness or giving her evil deeds leeway. Where previous live action films by Disney were still in line with the company’s trademark children’s entertainment, Cruella takes a leap and removes itself from its predecessors by centering a flawed character and embracing the hubbub she causes. A typical Disney children’s movie the film definitely is not.
Cruella barges in as a loud, rude, bold, and thrilling two-woman-show, not shying away from centering characters of low morals and focusing on dark themes like (attempted) murder and what it is like to choose a life of crime. It also tackles philosophical questions on mental illness and nature vs. nurture, exploring those themes more thoroughly than its campy surface lets on when we first encounter the film. Despite Disney-fied aspects still leaving marks (most notably Cruella’s trademark cigarette holder supposed to underline the character’s foulness is gone, since the company banned smoking from all of its films in 2015), those longing for new forms of storytelling from the company will be pleased with this film’s unsanitized approach. Cruella pushes for a main character whose actions, while not necessarily “good” make sense in the world she lives in, especially in regard to the challenges she faces: in this reality lack of money is an issue, skill is required to succeed, and birds won’t be flying through your window to braid your hair before meeting the prince charming who will put an end to all your problems. It is a twisted world of hardship that lets people easily fall through the cracks. Cruella’s main goal is getting to the bottom of these inequities and to do away with the notion that people simply are who they are. There is always a story or a cause that influences where life leads. Cruella’s achievement is its interest in proposing that stories about cruel women matter and make for a fun ride. While the film is not overly sympathetic to its main character, it still embodies a story of empowerment.
Yes, there are moments when the film could do better: words like “psycho,” “mad,” and “narcissist” are thrown around all too easily in the film’s unevenly-paced, two-hour runtime—as self-descriptions for characters, they do more harm than good in regard to how film oftentimes handles characters’ mental illness. Moreover, I know by looking at her actions that Cruella isn’t well. You don’t need to tell me by throwing around terms that read more like armchair diagnoses than anything else. Its contribution to the nature vs. nurture debate is murky—life isn’t as simple as deciding who you want to be by choosing from two possibilities as Cruella likes to make us believe.
The fact Cruella lands as a serious character study and cautionary tale is very much indebted to its lead actor. Emma Stone, while diving deep into stereotypical British eccentricities, never plays Cruella as a laughingstock but openly displays the character’s inner struggles and her complicated relationship with everyone and everything, including herself. Laying this inner turmoil out in the open makes more than one scene land as an emotional gut punch. Joined by Emma Thompson, who gives it her all as the most presumptuous and wittiest diva we have seen on-screen in a long time, this is a true dynamic duo (think “The Real Housewives of Absolutely Fabulous”). One not outshining the other, these two actors give us joy and make us feel the fun they must have had putting on affected accents, voices, and gestures.
While Cruella’s story is not only framed by but also told through bold costumes (Jenny Beavan and her costume department are next to the two Oscar winning actors and the third star of the film), Gillespie dials up a love for 70s British music up to 100. While a lot about the film is colorful, bold, and busy in its set and production design, we are offered a story that is not simply buried under busy aesthetics, but instead feels honest. A story about dire times, hard work, family, love, creativity, skill, and how women struggle to be seen and heard. Cruella therefore reads as a cautionary tale of corruption, of hardened women surviving in a world that doesn’t appreciate them, of how you sometimes only get to the top when you don’t play by the rules. And while Stone plays some aspects of her character for laughs, the film’s honesty is grounded in her portrayal of Cruella as a woman who never knew where she belonged and therefore had to make things happen herself with sheer will, lots of talent, and some criminal shenanigans—a stark move away from the one-dimensional villain she was previously portrayed as.
Yes, Cruella centers a corrupt character, and in doing so, shows that women can be just that as much as anyone. And that’s the spin the film pulls. Here the nasty boss is a woman, the feisty newcomer with talent who does not play by the rules is a woman, the loving parent keeping a harmful secret is a woman, just as the parent not wanting to be one is a woman. Cruella is a theatrical feast about complicated, untruthful, funny, smart, eccentric, lost, and hateful women of epic proportions, which means that, simply put, there is nothing else like it out there. In the end, Cruella proposes that what we might need on-screen are more cruel women who prove that their ascension to success is hard earned, but who are, understandably, not to everyone’s liking, especially given how they treat those around them. Cruella succeeds because it doesn’t aim to make Cruella the character likable but is rather interested in her unlikable traits. This film is not necessarily about relatability or compassion, but instead is about telling a story of a woman whom we find interesting for allowing herself to be the villain of her own story.
Cruella shows us that women can be simply not good (not good mothers, not good friends, not fair players) and that this is okay. Because, as we give cult status to Hannibal Lector, Tyler Durden, the Joker, and a multitude of characters played by Gary Oldman, we absolutely deserve a female villain that we find compelling onscreen. Cruella is a character study, a supervillain origin story, and a blueprint for how to enjoy stories about corrupt female characters. Cruella is a film we have been waiting for and we, now that it is here, should be able to enjoy it without the limited view society has given us of how women are allowed to be. Disney hasn’t hesitated to greenlight a sequel, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that the company continues to make use of this version of Cruella, since we need more extravagant and entertaining stories like hers on-screen.