While Cruella de Vil has always been one of the more memorable Disney villains, she wasn’t exactly a fully fleshed out character, seemingly existing solely to be evil and attempt to make a coat out of some adorable puppies. As such, there weren’t exactly a lot of people clamoring to see more of her story. Let’s face it, most of us love dogs, and aren’t really interested in possibly feeling sympathetic towards someone whose sole purpose in life seems to be killing them. This makes the studio’s decision to go ahead and make a prequel focused on her a somewhat baffling decision, but rather surprisingly, it is one that mostly winds up paying off.
We begin with Cruella (still known as Estella) as a little girl, struggling to fit in at school but receiving nothing but love and support from her single mother. After taking things a bit too far she is expelled, and so her mother packs them up and heads off for London. On the way, she stops at a cliffside mansion holding a gala event to discuss something with the owner, and is accidentally pushed off the cliff by the guard dogs (dalmatians, of course) who were chasing Cruella after she snuck into the party. She escapes to London with her own pet dog and meets up with 2 street urchins and their dog who take her into their secret hideout. Flash forward several years to a grown up Cruella (Emma Stone), who is still living with those same 2 men, Jasper & Horace (Joel Fry & Paul Walter Hauser), in the same hideout, pulling small heists to get by, and dreaming of working in the fashion industry. Jasper gifts her with a job at a luxury department store known for selling the clothing of her idol The Baroness (Emma Thompson) and she leaps at her golden opportunity. Stuck doing menial tasks, she still manages to catch the eye of The Baroness, and finds herself taken in as her protégé. She thinks she is finally on the way to achieving her dreams, before she discovers that The Baroness has been hiding some dark secrets that link directly to Cruella.
The casting is absolutely top notch here, with everyone excelling in their roles. The 2 Emmas (Stone and Thompson) are a particular delight, especially in scenes where they are both tasked with being coldly snarky to each other. The dichotomy between Estella and Cruella, presented as 2 very distinct sides of the same character, is played well, and makes the transition to Cruella’s eventual full takeover interesting to watch, though it should be noted that she never becomes genuinely “evil”. While it is being billed as a prequel to 101 Dalmatians, it really feels more like a reboot of the entire franchise, as there is no believable way that the character of Cruella as presented here would ever plot to make a coat out of puppies, which is definitely for the best. Director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, I, Tonya) handles the movie’s various tones well, gives everything just the right look, and mostly keeps things moving along at a good pace, though it does still feel like it could have used a little bit more trimming. Perhaps the biggest star behind the scenes here though is costume designer Jenny Beavan (Gosford Park, Mad Max: Fury Road). This movie features some of the most inspired and spectacular fashion for a film since Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel’s Academy Award winning work for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and honestly, the movie would be worth a look for that, even if the rest were a mess. Lucky for us it isn’t however, delivering a fresh reinvention of the character wrapped in a fun, stylish heist adventure. ★★★★
Available on Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack and on Disney+.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor