Cruella is not a movie that should work, but somehow it does.
Many critics will dub Disney’s latest questionable foray into live-action revisionism as an “anti-princess” movie, and they won’t be entirely wrong. Disney has always embraced the convenience of fairy tales as vehicles for the creation of role models for little girls. For most of Disney’s existence, though, very little thought was given to updating those fairy tales for modern girls who have more options in their lives than either marrying a rich man or starving to death. Even rarer in the Disney canon is an anti-heroine, a bad girl you shouldn’t root for but do anyway because goddamn if being bad doesn’t mean she’s having the time of her life. Disney doesn’t usually do sympathy for the devil (or de Vil, as it were). Yet here we are.
Let’s get the nitpicking out the way first: Between the direction of Craig Gillespie and a combination of five credited writers, Cruella is almost certainly too long and overwritten to really be great. Needle-drop after exhausting needle-drop of counterculture music from the 1970s bangs you over the head with thematic significance instead of bolstering what the film already has to offer. And the heart of the classic Cruella de Vil’s villainy — you know, that whole skinning-puppies-to-make-a-coat thing — is erased about as gracefully as a Disney-villain-turned-protagonist movie can manage. (Minor spoilers, but dog lovers should fear not: This Cruella never touches a hair on a CGI Dalmatian’s head.) Miraculously, though, Cruella overcomes its weaknesses thanks to a combination of star power, devilish fun and outrageously good clothes.
When Cruella works, it’s because of Emma Stone, proving here just as she did in The Favourite why she is Academy Award-winner Emma Stone. (Yes, I know she won for La La Land. Yes, I am choosing to ignore that.) In the beginning, she is not the Cruella we already know but a young grifter named Estella who runs away after accidentally causing her mother’s death at a gala to which neither was invited. Estella’s mother gave her daughter’s childhood rebellious streak a name — Cruella – and since her mother’s death, Estella tries her best to keep this alter ego buried in order to survive. Estella dyes her natural half-black, half-white hair (I mean, eye roll, but OK) to blend in, makes a living with her new family of thieves (Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser and two CGI mutts), and dreams of a career as a fashion designer on the level of the Baroness (Emma Thompson), an ice-cold genius who represents the pinnacle of taste in 1970s London.
A series of comical events give Estella exactly that chance, landing her a position as a junior designer in the Baroness’s fashion house. As she proves her worth and becomes closer to the Baroness, Estella learns of a connection between the Baroness and her mother that breaks her entire world and elicits the explosive re-emergence of Cruella — which is no longer just a rebellious streak but an entire alter ego, a fashion disruptor hell-bent on razing the Baroness’s empire to the ground.
The fashion warfare section of Cruella is when every part of the movie is firing on all cylinders, from Stone’s delightfully wicked performance to Cruella’s increasingly dramatic costumes (which will surely garner designer Jenny Beaven an Oscar nomination) and rowdy stunts, all of which are designed to unhinge the conservative and outdated Baroness. Estella’s strategy is half All About Eve, half Mordred marching into Camelot to dethrone King Arthur. Peerless monarchs are never quite what they seem, their crimes well-hidden but not so much that a clever upstart can’t engineer righteous comeuppance. In order to achieve her vengeance, Estella buries her sweeter self and allows Cruella to run rampant, setting free a part of herself that is mad, bad and dangerous to know. And Cruella doesn’t just look good. The cut of her fits Estella better than Estella herself. Estella was Cruella all along.
Cruella, then, is a journey of self-discovery, feel-good but not the good kind. It’s not Moana realizing her people were voyagers or Elsa finding her place as the Fifth Spirit. It’s closer to an alternate version of Star Wars where Rey realizes she’s a Palpatine and takes her place as Empress instead of destroying the Emperor and his throne — and it works.
Cruella’s actions are far from admirable, but accepting herself as she is and not how others think she should be is a complicated lesson that young children need just as much as adults forced to conform their entire lives. In the past, Disney has been more comfortable exploring this lesson in the Cinderellas and Belles of the world, but presenting this lesson through a villainous protagonist is, in many ways, much more compelling even if it isn’t always successful.
Cruella is a little too clean and carefully packaged to really go whole-hog into endorsing pure villainy, which is fine. No one wants to watch a movie justifying the actions of a chain-smoking fashion mogul who literally skins puppies. But twist the fairy tale a little, and you’ve got yourself a princess whose wickedness isn’t just palatable but delicious. Revenge against older generations who ruined our lives is not generally achievable in the real world, but god, is it fun to watch Cruella do it. How can you not root for her as she uses every weapon at her disposal, needle and grift alike, to expose the benefactress of the status quo for the evil oppressor that she is?
Oops. There Disney goes again, accidentally making a point!