Review of Cruella
By: Jenna Sparks

Where to even begin with this review? I guess I could preface this with the fact that…well, I like Disney. Not love, or adore, or worship. I like Disney. I have long appreciated the creativity of Disney films, having, like most children, grown up with them. And I do appreciate the bare minimum of work that the giant studio is putting in to create works of inclusive stories as they are increasingly doing (and I will fight anyone who tries to argue how Frozen was the first Disney film with a more progressive storyline rather than acknowledge the majesty that is Brave). Point is, I like Disney, but am always a little on the fence with skepticism when it comes to their cash grabs. When momentum started gaining a few years ago about a live-action Cruella DeVil origin story, I was hardly the biggest advocate. Like most people, I furrowed a brow at how Disney of all studios would aim to bring us a great story about a character whose motive is to kill dogs for fashion. But then the promos began cropping up, and I snobbishly gave it a little nod of attention. More and more, CRUELLA was plastered on every opportune ad space. I am, admittedly, a creature of appeal, and in beauty school, we were taught about the types of customers to target. I am an emotional customer. I am drawn to things that bring me strong emotions (this isn't any new age gospel, I swear). It tends to be brought forth by emotional ties to certain colors, scents, styles, etc. The aesthetic of what was presented in Cruella's visual advertisements knocked on all those doors for me, albeit, in a subtle, nagging sort of way.

I was genuinely excited about the look of the film alone. The more I thought on it, the more I realized how desperate I was to give this film a chance. I am also a huge fan of witnessing the creativity it takes to unravel a villainous character and rewrite them in a way that gives us the chance to understand their demise into the trenches of wickedness. I have long said that Rick Grimes is just as much a villain as Negan ever was, and had we started our journey in the Walking Dead from Negan's perspective, well, I think we'd agree Rick was a hell of an antagonist. Even today, there are theories posed regarding Ethan Winters of Resident Evil Biohazard and Village being a villain of a sort in the eighth game. But we're talking about a would-be dog murderer here! There is no saving grace for someone who would make it their life's goal to harm an animal! I would die for my dogs and am not ashamed to admit they are like my children, and honestly, I prefer them to people. Interestingly, though, somehow, I fell in love with Cruella. And maybe it's the fact that I tend to be attracted to fictional women who I feel could be "fixed" with genuine love. I don't know, this isn't a therapy session as to why I've got some weird complexes per my attractions. This is about how Disney put forward a story that was legitimately captivating in all the right ways.

So, I reiterate: where do I even begin?

From the get-go, we see Estella, the name Cruella was born with and goes by early on, is a little rebel. She is brought up by a loving mother who is understanding and compassionate toward her daughter's streak for madness. In a small English village, it's easy for young Estella to stick out like a sore thumb (partly due to her black and white hair she was born with, but mainly because of her desire to ward off conformity). So, they head out to London, and on the way, Estella's mother opts to make a pit stop. Pulling up to an estate fit for royalty (literally), the young girl's mother leaves Estella, and Estella's little pup, Buddy (notably not a Dalmatian), in the car. Unable to sit still, Estella penetrates the estate to find herself in the middle of a wondrous fashion gala. After accidentally making a scene, Estella stumbles outside where, from afar, she witnesses her mother speaking to someone near a cliff. Within a moment, three Dalmatians leap over Estella and hurry toward the duo at the cliff, toppling Estella's mother over, sending her to her death.

Panicked, Estella flees and partners up with young Jasper and Horace. From then on, they are three chums making the best of their young lives. Cue a montage of them growing up and becoming master thieves in 1960's, and eventually, 1970's London, joined with a growing Buddy and the one-eyed CGI superstar, Wink the Chihuahua. Eventually, with help from Jasper (Joel Fry, Game of Thrones), Estella begins life working legitimately at a renowned department store, laboring and toiling away doing grunt work rather than being utilized as a true creative. It's one drunken night that results in her putting her work on full display in the store's window, when designer, The Baroness (Emma Thompson, I'm-Not-Putting-A-Movie-Here-Because-You-KNOW-Who-This-Queen-Is), sees the wild display and invites young Estella, now being arrested, to join her at her atelier the next morning.

It doesn't take long for Estella to prove herself as a brilliant designer with a tactful, modern eye that does its job in bettering The Baroness' work. Even the Baroness, icy as she is, realizes this fact. Working her way up, Estella becomes a right hand to the iconic designer, and one fateful afternoon, realizes something peculiar about the Baroness; she's wearing a familiar necklace, the very one her mother wore regularly (this is pointed out within the first minute, don't worry). Estella puts two and two together, realizing the Baroness is even more devious than she appears. This haunting realization opens an invitation for Estella, who has, up to this point, done her best to live as her mother taught her, hiding a side of herself she had been expressed to bury, to finally unhinge herself from Estella and live as Cruella, a nickname given by her mother for Estella's rebellious outbursts.

To go much further in describing the story would cause far too many spoilers, so I'm stopping myself. But I really need to express this, and I wish we could really advocate for this truth in all creative mediums. Coloring your hair is not easy. You cannot lighten hair with color. It requires lightener (or bleach). You cannot, no matter how much you try, slather red hair dye on top of hair that is stark white on one side and raven black on the other and have a beautifully even mop. And you cannot, within a few hours, after years and years and years of box-dying your hair dark, cherry red, strip that color from your naturally black and white hair, and have it return to its stark whiteness and raven blackness. Okay. Still with me? Sorry, that was rough for all of us, I know. Just never, ever, ever believe any movie or TV show and what they tell you about coloring hair, please. It is never accurate. Except for Blow Dry (starring Emma Thompson).

Anyway, this slight is (*deep breath*) forgivable. And it's forgivable because Cruella teeters on fantasy. There are outlandish concepts brought to life, and they too are all forgivable because the payoff is worth it. The minute Cruella reveals herself, she sets fire to a bright white cape that gently burns away to reveal a shocking red gown beneath. Never mind that she remained unmaimed and her hair, surely fried to a crisp after somehow getting the red dye out of it in just hours, is as perfectly coiffed as ever. It works because it is stunning. Even some of the wild gymnastics of Jasper, Horace, and Estella/Cruella's heists seem a little silly and near impossible to predict. But they still work, and you're not as focused on any of that because…

The work on the sets and costumes is so breathtaking. Before submitting herself to Cruella, Estella's style can easily be described as inspired by the punk movement of the 1970's in such a clever way, it's impossible not to appreciate that it looks like Vivienne Westwood invented the style (not the movement). Even The Baroness, whose style is so refined yet edging forward, is never adorned in anything that is not gobsmackingly gorgeous. Each look presented is hard to tear your eyes away from. There is subtle grace and a maintained edginess, and I genuinely am enviable of the sheer magnitude Jenny Beaven, the film's costume designer, was able to put forth with such a righteousness of wonder. Even if you don't give hoot about the story, the vision behind the costumes alone is worth watching for.

And then there are the sets! The 1970's saw a resurgence of art nouveau in a beautiful and captivating way (while the 1980's brought us the art deco resurgence, but we won't talk about that and preferably forget it altogether), and the recollection absolutely shines. We are living in two worlds through this film: Cruella's boho, derelict aesthetic, and the Baroness' classic tastes. Her atelier is my dream come true in a place of work. I would give just about anything to have this as my studio space, even in a myopic way. The palette of this set is so tantalizing it made me grit my teeth as though I were begging for another hit. The black and white diamond tiles contrasted with the coolness of the teal beams situated around the atelier and the gold and black accents scream decadence, and while the (fictional) work environment genuinely seems majorly toxic, I think I'd deal with it just to be in the presence of that set.

All the nods to the French neoclassical period and even mid-century design (as shown through the Baroness' stagnancy in her design) are so blissfully enigmatic. And I don't think any film has ever featured so many French twists. One scene probably had one hundred French twists on screen, and for that, I am mildly appreciative for reasons I can't even begin to understand.

While the design left nothing for want, I could have done with a fraction more inspiration from what sets the 70's apart from every other generation: glam rock. There are the subtleties of Bowie-esque fashion and aesthetic, but I do wish we could have seen just a bit more, especially with the powerhouse of underused character, Artie (John McCrea), whose own style is dedicated to that genderfluidity of glam rock.

By now, you're also probably wondering about the music. And don't get me wrong, the music was great. The score was magnificent and carried the tone beautifully, and the placement of familiar songs worked just as well. We're treated to the usuals: some Rolling Stones, Queen, Blondie, The Clash, Ike, and Tina Turner, and even The Doors. All great, great songs. I'm sorry, though, to admit there are two moments that just blow the whole soundtrack out of the water and outshine the entire musical journey: John McCrea covering the Stooge's I Wanna be Your Dog and Florence + the Machine's take on Call me Cruella. The minute I Wanna be Your Dog started, I had to pause for five minutes straight to slap my knee. I will lay awake tonight hoping against hope that it was fought for, tooth and nail, to include that song in a Disney movie. I hope there were grit teeth and slamming fists on tables as some Disney exec wiggling his jowls in detest and disgust as someone made a case for the inclusion of this song. It just brings me joy. Then again, maybe I have been misinterpreting the lyrics my whole life.

So, let's jump back to the story, again, without spoilers. Because when all the glitz and glamour fades and we're left with the story, it holds strong. We're offered the familiarities of Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Death in Netflix's upcoming Sandman series!!!) and Roger (Kayvan Novak, this-f***ing-guy from What We Do in the Shadows) and it's a joy to see their burgeoning careers and how they became familiar with Cruella in the first place (don't forget to stay after the credits for fun post-credits scene!). Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Cobra Kai) and Jasper's relationship to Cruella is also endearing and gives us more juxtaposition as to why they've remained loyal to her. And while it may be hard to believe, there is heart in this story. There is love in it, too. There are no romantic interests, and the women aren't driven by unnecessary plots of wooing. Taking a very one-dimensional villain and layering her with trauma (like, serious trauma), much like Maleficent did, gives us the understanding of who this character truly is. She is a woman in a place that is fascinating for us to watch her grow and manifest from, and sadly, we all know where she ends up. It's not a hopeful story, but a powerful one. It is dark yet whimsical and magical, and again, dark. The script is a delight, with phenomenal and memorable one-liners that I'll probably sub-consciously apply to my own daily vocabulary. Oh, and there is zero, zilch, nada, puppy murder, so that is a great upside, too.

What the writers (Dana Fox, Tony McNamara, Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel, and Steve Zissis) and director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) were able to achieve is a bold and brash look into the psychology and drive of someone shaped and molded by a desire for power and demanding her space (kin). There is nothing demure about Cruella, and Emma Stone absolutely sank herself into this role in a way that was again, so righteously enigmatic. You can't help but be on her side, or at the very least, understand how she's morphing into the Cruella we know today.

I am absolutely pleased by the creativity that went into this production and am in love with the presentation. There are a couple awkward CGI instances (a scene toward the end that just…oof, landed a bit offputtingly; pun intended) and like I said before, forgivable occurrences regarding specifics about hair care. Additionally, in one scene, Cruella is clearly using a Micron Pigma pen (my favorite), and the Micron Pigma line wasn't even released until the '80's, so, point is, I am ashamedly aware of how detail minded I was while watching. Overall, it was a brilliant take on a film we all had a few reservations about, and I am immensely looking forward to Cruella 2. A true and admirable, enviable, and satisfied 5 out 5 stars!

Cruella is available for streaming for the kind of absurd price of $29.99 on Disney+, but honestly, worth it.

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