By: Kevin Jordan
A tale of two Emmas.
For years, Disney has been trying to recapture the magic of beloved classics, either by remaking them or attempting to reimagine them, and mostly failing. Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent, and more. I get that people have enjoyed some of them, especially The Jungle Book, which completely ruined the ending of the story, but it’s only been successful in that they have made a ton of movies, not that people have truly loved the films. Don’t believe me? Sing the new song they added to the Beauty and the Beast remake. Nope, that’s from the original. So is that. Now you’re just embarrassing yourself.
When I learned that Cruella de Vil was getting her own live-action origin story film, my brain immediately went to Maleficent, a decidedly bad attempt at a villain origin story that tried to make someone whose name literally means evil into a misunderstood princess. Gross. The good news is Disney finally managed to get a live-action villain origin story right in Cruella.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead to talk about how Disney almost kept their losing streak alive.)
The movie definitely starts off on the wrong foot, with the same cliches as every other Disney film. Zero points if you guessed that it starts with a little girl named Estella…whose mom dies. Seriously, what is wrong with Disney? It’s supposed to be THE family-friendly company and they can’t get ten minutes into a film without killing off a parent or two. And to top it off, this initial chain of events sure stunk like Disney trying to turn another villain into a misunderstood princess. A villain whose alter ego not only means evil, but literally contains the words cruel and evil. Remember, the original Cruella wanted to murder ninety-nine puppies to make a coat. I promise – nobody wants to see Princess Estella.
And the way they kill Cruella’s mom off was a terrible scene…at first. The way the scene initially plays out is so unbelievable it almost made me turn off the film. My wife and I looked at each other like we had microwaved fish. The scene felt like Disney was so aware of its reputation for patri/matri-cide that it was trolling us. But, I am nothing if not a glutton for movie punishment, so I pressed on, fully expecting the film to devolve into a nostalgia-filled train wreck. And I am glad I did because I have never been so glad to be so wrong about a film.
The first act ends with young, now-orphaned Estella meeting a couple of London street urchins named Jasper and Horace. We jump ahead ten years thanks to a montage of their pickpockets and thefts, and the second act begins with Estella (Emma Stone) complaining that she is somewhat bored with their current lifestyle. Sensing this, Jasper gives her a birthday present – an employment acceptance letter at a high-end fashion store called Liberty that Estella has been obsessed with for years. You see, Estella fancies herself a fashion genius and just wants a chance to prove herself. All she has to do now that she has the job is prove her worth. The job is janitor, but that’s just a minor detail. After finally hitting the end of her toilet-scrubbing, floor-cleaning, garbage-dumping rope, she goes full Mannequin on a window display and the movie finally starts.
At the same time Estella’s display is discovered, in strolls the owner of Liberty, one Miranda Priestly. Whoopsie, I mean Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson). Much of the rest of the story plays out in such a way that it’s clear which movie the writers had just watched, but they do a good job of threading the needle between homage, plagiarism, and Prada.
The Baroness is what Miranda Priestly would have become if Miranda lacked a conscience. Yeah, the Baroness is that nasty. And Thompson owns the Baroness the way Meryl Streep owned Miranda. The Baroness is a delightful mix of cunning, viciousness, and heartlessness wrapped in a ball of wry humor of which only a few actors are capable. And Emma Thompson is one of them. It’s what made Hela and Loki so delightful and what Maleficent so clearly lacked. That mix of characteristics is what brings Cruella to full fruition and also what pushes Emma Stone to make Cruella just as memorable as the Baroness.
Having a great actor like Thompson around always pushes the rest of the cast to be better, but having Stone there too is like a rookie ball player filling in on an All-Star team. The two play off each other so well, each trying to out-villain the other. I particularly enjoyed the way Stone balanced what was almost two roles – Estella, who was just trying to make her mom proud, and Cruella, who was trying to burn the Baroness to the ground. With those two tossing a gem, the rest of the cast had no choice but to raise their game, so much so that Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) almost managed to steal the show. Almost.
This Jasper and Horace were much better than their original, animated predecessors. Instead of clumsy, dopey oafs, they were three-dimensional characters that provided heart to balance out the villainy. And let’s not forget the Baroness’ valet, John, played by Mark Strong. I mean, is Mark Strong ever not good? Even as a secondary character in this film, Strong commands your attention when he is on screen. He’s just so very Mark Strong.
As for the rest of the production, there is plenty to praise beyond the acting and story. The costumes and makeup were exceptionally good, at times really capturing the essence of 1970’s London. The same can be said for the music, which was as perfectly chosen as in Guardians of the Galaxy. As for the story itself, I was very surprised when the film revisited Cruella’s mom’s death scene to explain why it initially came off as so unbelievable. Just like I was surprised the film didn’t pile on a bunch of forced call-backs to 101 Dalmatians for cheap nostalgia. Not that there aren’t call-backs, but they are subtle and clever. All of which is to say, I finally walked out of a Disney live-action retread without a foul taste in my mouth. Thank you, Emma. Thank you, Emma.Rating: The first movie of the pandemic era in which I can say don’t ask for any money back, but you should still wear a mask when you go to the theater.