Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Gorgeous and vicious: It’s my favorite combination,” croons the Baroness, Emma Thompson’s character in “Cruella,” a fashion designer — and a real b*tch for the ages. The new Disney origin story for the love-to-hate-her character from “101 Dalmatians” boils down to a battle of wills between two fabulously snarky women, with Emma Stone as the two-toned hair upstart of the title.
This is camp for kids, a riff on “All About Eve” and “The Devil Wears Prada” that, while overlong, is a sight better than your average prequel (I’m looking at you, “Solo: A Star Wars Story”). It’s also a celebration of visual excess that stealthily aligns with the worldview of the Disney corporation itself.
Set long before the saga of Anita and Roger Darling and their fertile Dalmatians, it’s the story of how Cruella — nee Estella — is orphaned in London, falls in with young grifters Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), and works her way into the service of a ruthless top fashion designer (Thompson) whose misdeeds eventually drive Cruella to become, as she proclaims herself, “brilliant, bad, and a little bit mad.”
Does this adequately explain the Cruella de Vil whose bloodlust for skinning puppies fueled the 1961 animated classic and its source, Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel? Nope. The big Mouse would, understandably, like to whitewash that little detail. It does so with an intoxicating dose of Disneyfied glam, courtesy of “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie.
But try as she might, Stone’s Cruella never really reads as a villain. She seems, at the worst, a kind of spiritually empty cousin to convention-bucking literary icons like Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables, whose quirks (and wayward red hair) become defining strengths.
Aspiring fashionista Estella learns to tap into her inner Cruella in the midst of 1970s London, drawing on a Vivienne Westwood-esque punk rock aesthetic to stage flash-mob runway events that show up her more mainstream nemesis. Sure, she does so in the name of revenge, after finding out the Baroness is responsible for the death of her mother, but this is hardly “Kill Bill.” She may side-eye a trio of menacing Dalmatians belonging to her boss, but she’s fundamentally a friend to canines, with a couple of lovable mutts as pets.
Cruella’s biggest transgression seems to be her arch tone, especially when she’s snapping at grown Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), depicted in the 1961 movie as bumbling lackeys. Her exterior may tip its black-and-white ‘do at the Joker and Harley Quinn, but Stone’s Cruella is not — despite her frequent use of the term — a “psycho.”
Stone and Fry have a nice zing of chemistry, actually, but one of the things I liked best about this movie is its total lack of interest in pairing Cruella off. Both she and the Baroness have no time for romance, a trait that could be read as an indictment of single, ambitious women, but my guess is that Disney is, as usual, simply capitalizing on the cultural moment, in which sisters are doing it for themselves.
In that vein, this is also possibly the studio’s queerest movie, featuring as one of its few likable characters a flamboyant Ziggy Stardust androgyne, the high-end thrift shop owner Artie (John McCrea). The soundtrack, meanwhile, is a primer on vaguely risqué anthems like “Whole Lotta Love,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and, hilariously, the S&M-tinged “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Yes, some of these tunes may be well-worn, but they’re probably not old hat to younger viewers. And they’re surely all more fun earworms for kids (and anyone who lives with them) than “Let It Go,” am I right, parents?
I’m not suggesting “Cruella” is a great accomplishment; it’s a featherweight trifle, but it has a sense of anarchic fun that you don’t normally get in Disney properties, which have traditionally been weighed down in morality messaging and nuclear-family modeling (“a worldview so sugarcoated it makes one’s teeth ache,” bemoaned the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s).
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In fact, this might be Disney’s most honest movie yet, a love letter to the joys to be found in spectacle and artifice - and if the little people get bruised as you ascend on their backs, well, so be it. In the make-believe land of “Cruella,” that adds up to a crackling duo of antiheroines.
But this confectionary ode to supposed villainy is brought to you, let’s remember, by the company that laid off many thousands of workers during the pandemic while making sure its top executives and shareholders were well compensated. An organization that’s been taken to task by a Disney heir, no less, for its inhumane treatment of employees at its parks. One that only just started paying people a whopping $15 an hour to work in the dead of summer in enormous, heat-trapping suits. Spectacle, at any human cost: The Baroness would be proud.