CRUELLA Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Tony wants to be bad.
Cruella has had a tough time getting accepted by lots of people, for a fairly straightforward reason. Whereas Malificent carried quite a lot of mystery in her background that made people want to find out more about what made her who she was, there’s a sense in 101 Dalmations that Cruella de Vil is preeeeetty much all there on the page and the screen. Bad, evil fashion lady, wants to make a coat out of a bunch of adorable puppies. Goes to extraordinary, psychopathic lengths to achieve her goal. Outwitted by dogs. The end.

If you’re going to deliver an origin film for Cruella, you need to do two things. Firstly, you need to convince your audience that we want and need to know what made Cruella the person she is. And secondly, you need, somehow, to generate some sympathy for the de Vil. (Oh honey, if you thought that was bad, you’d better fasten your seatbelt – it’s going to be a bumpy night).

Cruella as a movie sets about the task with a good deal of gusto, if never feeling like there’s a whole lot of genuine enthusiasm behind the project until fairly late in the day.

Firstly, we learn of Cruella’s girlhood and her dual nature. Named Estella by her kindly mother, there’s always a struggle to keep ‘sweet Estella’ at the forefront of her character, and to keep ‘Cruella’ – at first her mother’s nickname for Estella’s horrid side – down and out of sight.

A child born with her duality of mind visible to all in her divided black and white hair, she is bullied at school, and is daily faced with the dilemma – take it as ‘sweet Estella,’ or fight back as Cruella.

There’s something positively Tim Burton about the seriousness with which her divided mind is portrayed both in the writing and the visuals of the movie, and when she’s expelled from school – or withdrawn, the point is slightly grey – her mother takes her to a fancy party where she calls on an friend or benefactor.

In what is probably the most ludicrous scene in the film – and one which has already faced some deserved lampooning on the internet - Estella’s mother is killed, and a family heirloom necklace is left behind as the girl makes her escape, heading to the streets of London. Falling in with sneak-thieves Jasper and Horace (her idiot underlings in the original 101 Dalmations), she grows up alongside them, stealing by day, and by night, practicing a craft that has long been her inspiration – fashion and dressmaking – so she can equip them with disguises for their nefarious acts.

But Estella wants more – she wants to be ‘in fashion,’ and eventually to have a fashion house of her own, like the famous Baroness whose billboards are everywhere. A stint cleaning toilets at Liberty of London leads to an improbable engagement with the Baroness (Emma Thompson, playing a kind of bigger, badder, more emotionally immobile version of the Cruella we know from the Dalmations movies), and the movie shifts gear.

This is a point worth making about Cruella. It’s a fantastic soundtrack occasionally in search of a movie, and along the way it tries on five or six, leaving them discarded on the fitting room floor as Cruella’s journey to self-realization progresses. From a start not unlike Oliver! – young waif found by other, friendly waifs on the streets of London, led into a life of petty crime to survive – Estella’s time working for the Baroness is very much an homage to The de Vil Wears Prada (ahem). Working for the boss from hell, trying to keep her ‘Estella’ persona front and centre, and wearing hair dye and/or a wig to disguise the neon sign of her difference, Estella’s attention to duty, genuine creative flair and ability to satisfy the unsatisfiable Baroness see her rise to prominence.


During this rise, there’s a whooooole mess of backstory revealed, and Estella’s heart hardens to the Baroness she has idolised for so long. The Baroness has her family heirloom, and is claiming it as her own, claiming it was stolen from her.

Cue the Ocean’s 11 section of Cruella, as Estella and her henchmen plan to steal the necklace from the Baroness’s safe during the biggest party of the season. This is the first time Cruella outs herself in public, in a fabulously flamboyant party-stealing diversion, while Jasper, Horace, and their pet dogs deal with sophisticated surveillance systems, heavyweight bodyguards, a laser protection grid, you name it – everything you can throw at a heist sequence is thrown at it here. Ultimately though, what becomes clear in this attempted theft is that Cruella has a series of gifts: a serious eye for fashion, and some serious sewing skills to match it; a talent for planning; but most of all, when she’s let off Estella’s leash, Cruella has a gift for mayhem.

After failing to steal back ‘her’ heirloom, there’s another tonal shift, as Cruella, now increasingly dominant in Estella’s personality, dedicates herself not to the simple theft of an heirloom – though she has a rather Dalmation-centric plan to get that too – but to rising up in the image of her oppressor, to take everything the Baroness has from her, and make it her own. For those keeping score, this is the She de Vil (Or Life And Loves Of A She de Vil, if you prefer) section of the movie, where envy and hatred channel Cruella’s actions into a campaign to steal the Baroness’s spotlight through a number of high-octane, high-visual upstaging events (rather than, for instance, going the Estella route and diligently working her way into her own fashion house).

This has only just begun to gather momentum when the movie shifts tones again, back to something wholeheartedly Tim Burton, as Cruella goes jussst a little unhinged, Joker-style. Not modern Joker – think Jack Nicholson, “I have given a name to my pain…”-style Joker, complete with increasingly thick white face paint as Cruella escalates her war to a kind of supervillain status.

However, it’s always important to keep in mind that this is Cruella’s story, and that her enemy is at least theoretically the bigger evil. Thompson plays the stiffness and psychopathy of the Baroness with a textbook precision, which allows Emma Stone to shine in all the various sections of Estella/Cruella’s campaign. Where Thompson’s Baroness moves minimally, bringing down opponents with a small number of words or the incline of her head, Cruella – who importantly has had to fight her way up from the streets for everything she has – is all movement, flash, dash and impact.

There’s a sense in which this campaign of carnage and revenge should build straight from here to an ending which leaves us with the Cruella who haunts us from the Dalmations movies. But instead, there’s an extra reel which is where, if anywhere, Cruella starts to lose the patience of the audience.

More revelations, particularly about Cruella’s origins, explain what would have been relatively obvious if we’d stopped for half a minute to think about it, and lead us to a stylish, but more or less inevitable conclusion. The important point of which is that Cruella, having gone to the edge of madness and possibly just a little beyond, steps back from that compassionless, full Cruella edge and determines to be smart, rather than to follow her Cruella energy into the dark.

In essence, while the whole film is a neat journey of self-discovery for girls and women, the final reel is Cruella coming to terms with her darkness, but managing to use it in a smart way, rather than just as the outpourings of rage that got her expelled from schools as a child and pushed her to nearly destroy her oppressor as a woman. She comes to terms with those dark urges in herself, but uses them as fuel to win the game in a devious, underhanded, but totally morally acceptable way.

That’s ultimately the journey of Cruella, the movie – it’s a Dark Disney hero-quest that speaks to the impulses of girls in its audience. The ‘Nice Girl’ training of her mother (and the structures of society) versus the primal, invigorating power of her transgressive, self-defining darker impulses. Yes, if you let them rule you, you can go completely into the dark (and, for instance, start hunting Dalmations for a perfect fur coat), but if you can harness your real energy and channel it, you can blow away the conventions of your society while still rocking it, winning friends and influencing people.

Cruella struggles occasionally to find its direction, and there are points at which it feels like that ridiculously cool soundtrack in search of a single movie. But that’s to miss the point a little. Cruella’s journey is not dull and linear – the stories of many geniuses, and many powerful women, aren’t either. So yes, Cruella is a good handful of movies sewn together. The result is something that won’t suit everyone, and can easily begin to feel overlong and extraneously detailed. But it’s a creation you’ll find hard to forget, and for Emma Stone, up against Emma Thompson at the height of her screen villain powers, it’s a combination of Disney Princess and comic-book villainess that deserves a place high on her resume.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad