Friday, May 28, 2021

Don't Be 'Cruella'

Dalmatians? Never heard of such a thing.

When the trailer for Cruella came out last year, the majority response seemed to be, "Do we really need yet another villain origin story, much less one that looks like Joker but with dresses?" That reaction was partly right. No, we don't need a Cruella de Vil origin story, but the one they've given us is not a nihilistic Joker-in a dress fable. Instead, it's a fun, fashion fueled fantasy that is ultimately weighed down by its connection to the Disney franchise.

Like many an origin story, it begins in school days, with a young raven-and-platinum-haired Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) ostracized by her classmates and her teachers. She doesn't take any of it laying down, releasing the inner fighter she dubs "Cruella" whenever she feels threatened or rebellious.

When tragedy strikes, Estella ends up alone on the streets of London, but quickly finds two literal partners in crime in Jasper and Horace, two ragamuffin brothers, and they grow up to be thick as thieves. Frankly, I was glad to see the childhood stuff end pretty quickly, as the parts with the now grown Estella (Emma Thompson) and Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) running scams and picking pockets on the streets of early 1970's London are pretty fun to watch.

Estella's dream is to be a fashion designer, which firmly sets this up as a prequel to the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as Cruella, and not the animated version released in 1961. Cruella's eventual obsession with dalmatian puppy pelts is given some explanation as well (although that explanation is so ridiculous I howled with laughter when it was revealed). 

Cruella's designing dreams put her in the path of the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), London's haute couture legend, who recognizes some talent in Estella, whom she initially dubs "Grubby Girl," and hires her for her fashion house.

What follows is closer to The Devil Wears Prada than 101 Dalmatians (in fact Prada and Cruella share a screenwriter), and that ultimtely got me wishing the whole film could have instead been a kind of hyper, Velvet Goldmine-type fantasized version of the Vivienne Westwood story (who is very clearly the inspiration behind Cruella's punk style), and not the story of a villain we're supposed to love but who we all know eventually grows up to be a PUPPY MURDERER.

The heart of the film, in which the Baroness and Cruella engage in fashion-based battles and one-upmanship, is a complete delight. Along with Jasper and Horance, Cruella's crew includes a one eyed chihuahua named Wink, and Artie (John McCrea), the flamboyantly glam rock owner of a vintage clothing shop. Emma Thompson clearly relishes her villainous role, while also underplaying it in unexpected ways. She's a boss from hell in every sense of the term, but manages to be utterly horrible without a bit of screaming. Also: her turban game is on point.

Emma Stone plays Cruella like a superhero who is discovering her dominion is the power of a show-stopping entrance. Her "rubbish gown" alone should garner costume designer Jenny Beaven an Oscar, though really the film is filled with more costume eye candy than can be caught in one viewing. All of the colorful visuals are backed by a killer soundtrack that, yes, includes some of the expected sounds of the era (the Stones; the Clash; Bowie), but I have to applaud the inclusion of Ike and Tina Turner's covers of Whole Lotta Love and Come Together. Truly inspired.

With a running time of 134 minutes Cruella is definitely too long, and is almost begging for an alternative cut that eliminates the majority of the franchise tie-ins, leaving behind a story of a punk rock princess who beats an evil queen, and lives happily ever after in her own fashion empire, with a couple of cute black and white dogs she has absolutely no desire to murder.

Cruella is playing in theaters now, and is also available on Disney+ as a premium rental.

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