Rebecca’s Take

Disney’s live-action versions of their animated classics have been hit-or-miss. “Maleficent” (2014) was a breath of fresh air and my favorite, a bold retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” from the point of view of its misunderstood villain. “Cinderella” (2015) was charming but ultimately safe. The worst of the remakes is “The Lion King” (2019), a carbon copy of the 1994 cartoon that featured stunning visuals but lacked the heart of the original.

Going into “Cruella” at the movie theater, I didn’t know what to expect. The origin of the fur-loving villain Cruella de Vil from the “101 Dalmations” franchise sparkled with promise, but would it deliver? The answer is a resounding yes.

Delightful and original, “Cruella” shows the fruits of Disney’s labor when the House of Mouse takes chances. Tackling adult themes, the dark prequel available in theaters and on Disney Plus proves the more Disney’s live-action films deviate from the original source material, the better they are.

The film is a journey of self-discovery told through a villain’s origin story, with surprising twists and turns. “Cruella” is also a story of self-acceptance. The prequel celebrates its lead character as she comes into her own.

Set in London during the punk revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, “Cruella” follows Estella (Emma Stone), an outsider from society with her half-white, half-black hair. As a child, Estella is a free-thinking spirit with a knack for fashion who frequently gets in trouble at school. When her mother dies tragically, Estella is forced to live on the streets, taking up with orphan grifters Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).

After Estella starts working at a department store, her unique sense of style catches the eye of fashion designer the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who gives her a job. While working with the Baroness, Estella not only learns about fashion, but that the designer was connected to her mother’s death. As she embarks on a plan of revenge, Estella’s more assertive side – named “Cruella” – emerges as she comes to terms with who she really is and who she’s meant to be.

Rated PG-13, “Cruella” is the darkest of Disney’s live-action films – and the better for it. The inventive prequel greatly expands upon the Cruella de Vil character established in the 1961 cartoon and the later live-action versions. The film unravels the bitter woman set on making a coat from the skins of dalmations, revealing her sad childhood, grief from losing a parent and struggle to conform. “Cruella” addresses these hard-hitting subjects in an accessible way for kids and teens.

Like “Maleficent,” “Cruella” builds sympathy for its protagonist and makes her relatable. As an orphan with unusual hair and independent personality, Estella is shunned by the mainstream. Her classmates make fun of her, the department store manager ridicules her, and the Baroness looks down her nose at her. She also likes dogs (see, she’s not all bad!) and even has a cute canine sidekick. The audience roots for Estella to succeed even as her plots grow more malicious.

Though the film has been compared to “Joker,” “Cruella” is more similar to “The Devil Wears Prada.” Estella must navigate the dog-eat-dog world of high fashion on her way to embracing her individuality. The counterculture punk era provides the perfect setting as Estella gradually lets her rebellious nature free, outfitted in Jenny Beavan’s stunning costume designs. Estella transitions from demure black outfits to eye-popping black leather, black eyeliner and bright red lipstick as Cruella takes over.

The character benefits from Stone’s immense likability. The actress transforms from the meek Estella to the self-assured Cruella. She goes from covering up her black and white hair, vowing to “keep her head low,” to letting her natural locks flow and taking charge. By the time Cruella makes her show-stopping public debut, I was already cheering for her. Stone captures the complexity in Cruella, showcasing her vulnerability alongside her resilience.

“Cruella” provides a cage match for a pair of Oscar winners. Playing two strong-willed characters, Stone and Thompson share a palpable push-and-pull dynamic, first as protégé and mentor, then as enemies. At the top of her game, the fierce Thompson is the film’s true villain. She inspires fear and foreboding as the cold, calculating and ruthless Baroness. Thompson makes an excellent ice queen, priming viewers for what Cruella will one day become.

The prequel expands upon its links to the original while adding a modern sensibility. Jasper and Horace, the burglars from the 1961 cartoon, are introduced as Estella’s family surrogates, growing up alongside her. Fry, who was enjoyable in the mediocre films “Yesterday” and “Love Wedding Repeat,” stands out as the insightful Jasper, who begins questioning Estella/Cruella’s methods. As Horace, Hauser brings comic relief as the clumsy, dim-witted burglar with a heart. In an inclusive move for Disney, “Cruella” promotes acceptance of the LBGTQ community with a new character, the gay and compassionate shopkeeper Artie (John McCrea).

What works against “Cruella” is its length. The film moves at a clip, but at a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s long for audiences of all ages to sit through. Trimming about 15-20 minutes could have tightened up the film. The prequel also relies heavily on playing punk rock songs from the time period, one right after another. The frequently changing radio dial can get annoying.

Taking a cue from “Maleficent,” “Cruella” offers a bold and imaginative take on one of Disney’s most famous villains, and the result is just as fabulous as its well-dressed protagonist. The enjoyable prequel establishes a complex character to root for. As one of Disney’s best live-action offerings, the film shows that moving away from its source material can pay off with a rewarding story and a new world to play in. “Cruella” opens the door to more films starring Stone’s fashionable antihero.

4 out of 5 stars

Emma Stone in a scene from “Cruella.” Costumes for the film were designed by Oscar winning designer Jenny Beavan. (Laurie Sparham/Disney via AP)

Joe’s Take

While I don’t remember a lot about the original “101 Dalmatians” and the live-action “101 Dalmatians” and “102 Dalmatians,” I know Cruella de Vil’s goal in all three. She wants to kidnap, skin and kill dalmatians to make a coat. Naturally Disney thought this villain needs an origin story. I was quite skeptical and didn’t even want to watch Disney’s “Cruella.” The concept of turning this evil villain into a protagonist seemed absurd. While there is a lot of good in “Cruella,” this film was dead on arrival because of its concept.

The film needs to get the audience on Cruella’s side immediately, because at least it’s smart enough to know its title character is based on a Disney villain who kidnapped and wanted to skin and kill dalmatians. It tries to accomplish this by making the three dalmatians in the film look evil and having the dogs commit a horrific act in a matter of minutes. Absolutely absurd. It also makes the villain of the film, the Baroness (Emma Thompson), more evil than Cruella. Oh also, in this film, Cruella loves dogs. She even has a dog companion, Buddy. See! She’s not evil! That is the main issue of the film. It works so hard to justify the person Cruella becomes, and that’s a losing battle. I’m going to keep saying it. This character is best known for kidnapping dalmatians in order to skin them and kill them to make a coat.

That doesn’t mean the main character always has to be someone the audience can get behind. However, when it comes to Disney and dogs, the main character should be a little likable. You know, for the kids maybe? It tries so hard to accomplish that as Emma Stone’s Cruella teeters on the edge of evil, but never quite goes there. That’s the other way to make this film. Lean into the evil. But it’s Disney so it can’t do that. Disney doesn’t even allow on screen smoking so the film didn’t have Cruella’s iconic cigarette holder. Again, dead on arrival. The film can’t go too evil with its main character, but can’t make her too good either. It leaves the film stuck in this middle ground where it just exists and doesn’t move the needle one way or the other. Making that kind of live-action remake or retelling has made Disney a lot of money. Unfortunately, it hasn’t resulted in anything worth watching.

Also, we don’t need to know the origin of Cruella de Vil’s name. We don’t need to know the origin of anybody’s name. We don’t care. Please stop shoehorning those scenes into prequels. Also, I like the songs, but this film went full “Suicide Squad” for its soundtrack. You don’t have to play a popular song every other minute. It’s a movie, not a music video.

The story and dialogue was incredibly predictable. I was sitting on my couch quoting the next lines before they happened. It also has an underlying theme of empowerment, which is cool but not when the character is empowered to become a dognapper who wants to skin dalmatians and kill them to make a coat.

OK, so I mentioned good things. Stone and Thompson own the screen and do what you expect Oscar winners to do, give great performances. They drive the film as they go toe-to-toe and make for some engaging sequences. Joel Fry (Jasper) and Paul Walter Hauser (Horace) also work well together and give strong efforts. John McCrea (Artie) makes the most of his screen time and it’s cool the film has an LBGTQ character. Mark Strong (John the Valet) essentially plays Mark Strong.

The real star of this film may be Jenny Beavan and the costume department. Beavan does a lot of work creating what seems like hundreds of outfits. I’ve once been told I have no sense of fashion, but even I can tell the work on this film is Oscar-worthy. The elaborate designs prove a huge part of the film. Beavan will be in the running for her third Academy Award. She also won for 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 1985’s “A Room with a View.”

I appreciate the quality of some of this film, which makes me think what if this was just a movie not based on anything? What if this movie wasn’t handcuffed by Disney and by an existing property? I think it would have been much easier to get behind and would have freed the movie up to do whatever it wanted. Instead, it was held back from being anything good or even great with the talent involved. That includes director Craig Gillespie, who made something as good as 2017’s “I, Tonya.” Of course, he made something as bad as “Million Dollar Arm,” one of the worst sports movies and another Disney project.

“Cruella” is another middling Disney live-action remake or retelling. While there’s a ton of talent and award-worthy costume design, the concept is flawed. Making a Disney character who kidnaps dalmatians in order to skin them and kill them so she could make a coat the main character makes no sense. It only would make sense if another studio did it and leaned into the evil. The film sort of works if you can forget who Cruella becomes, but I can’t. I’ll admit I don’t typically enjoy villain origin movies, because I don’t need a whole film to explain to me why a villain is evil. That could be accomplished within a film about a hero. Take “The Dark Knight” for instance. I understand why the Joker is a villain, because it hints at childhood trauma and trauma throughout his life. Making a whole film about it is overkill. And “Cruella” at 2 hours and 15 minutes was definitely that.

2.5 out of 5 stars