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Dir: Craig Gillespie. Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste. 12A cert, 134 mins
In the opening minutes of Disney’s first big post-lockdown release, a little girl is ticked off by her mother. “That’s cruel!” the young woman fondly chides, when her daughter – her hair a familiar shock of black and white – rips at her knitting to give it some punky pizzazz. “Your name’s Estella, not Cruella!” Mum exclaims. Well, let’s see what two-and-a-bit hours of prequel can do about that.
Disney’s latest live-action repurposing of a classic animated film addresses a question that had previously occurred to no one but their accountants: why did One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ fur-swathed villainess turn bad in the first place? The answer ends up mattering a lot less than all the flashy mischief the question makes possible – zany performances, deliciously ramped-up period detail, and an array of costumes by Jenny Beavan that feel like a garden-hose-blast to the eyeballs of pure sartorial flair and exuberance.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, Cruella is as big on toxic female rivalry as his 2017 figure-skating drama I, Tonya, and infused with a similar knowing ripeness that brings it to the brink of panto. What sets it apart from the studio’s recent suite of blockbuster remakes – not to mention the two Glenn Close-led films of 20-odd years ago – is its willingness to zag off at a tangent, and try out its iconic central character in an appealing new context.
Said context is London of the 1960s and ’70s, where Emma Stone’s Estella has grown up on the streets after her mother (Emily Beecham) meets the standard Disney parent’s fate. She’s befriended by two brothers, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and becomes the third wheel of their small-time pickpocketing operation, designing and stitching the outfits that help the trio blend in with their affluent victims.
Noting their adoptive sister’s obvious talent for fashion design, they snag her a job at the department store Liberty, where she’s recruited as an apprentice by Emma Thompson’s Baroness von Hellman, the most forbiddingly chic couturière in town. Before you can say “De Vil Wears Prada”, the Baroness becomes Estella’s mentor and nemesis.
The mood is one of acid-tipped wackiness, and both Stone and Thompson understand exactly what’s required to bring it to life. Stone’s sharp-angled, hyper-expressive performance often more closely resembles animation than acting – the way she manically grips the steering wheel is pure midcentury Disney – while Thompson stalks the fine line between threatening and ludicrous with stiletto-heel precision. That same pleasing specificity of tone is matched by the supporting cast: even relatively incidental characters such as Jamie Demetriou’s uproarious Captain Peacock type, briefly making life miserable for Estella on the Liberty shop floor, are sketched with the anarchic panache of Ronald Searle cartoons.
The fun of Cruella lies mostly in watching its eccentric world whirr and clatter away, and the film only shows signs of strain when the time comes to push the plot over a hump. The tension between Estella and the Baroness revolves around a stolen necklace which only ever looks like a storytelling mechanism, and a pivotal heist scene, in which Estella, Jasper and Horace try to retrieve it during a masked ball, feels effortful and muddled.
The high point of the sequence isn’t the convoluted break-in but rather the mid-caper debut of Estella’s ‘Cruella’ alter ego. Part Vivienne Westwood, part Harley Quinn, with a cackle cribbed from Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, she’s determined to upstage the Baroness wheresoever she glides. Their ensuing frock-off serves as a glamorous digest of the changing times, as youthful provocation purges the fashion world of the sophistication and poise of the past. Cruella’s crowning statement piece is a Dalmatian-fur coat – fake; she’s not evil yet – unveiled on a guerrilla catwalk in Regent’s Park to the strains of I Wanna Be Your Dog. The music choices are rarely subtle – Nina Simone’s Feeling Good and The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go are also used in thumpingly obvious contexts – but they’re no less enjoyable for it.
If such sequences occasionally drag, it’s a result of oversupply rather than ineptitude. Cruella feels at least 15 minutes too long, and gives itself too many loose ends to tie up as its climax approaches. Even so, it’s hard not to be won over by its determination to keep sniffing and nipping at new angles, rather than just trotting along obediently at its source material’s side. As remakes and spin-offs go, this one’s barking up the right tree.
In cinemas and on Disney+ now