The history of Disney’s recent slate of live-action remakes of animated classics, which began in earnest in 2010 when Tim Burton’s rococo, 3D version of Alice in Wonderlandgrossed over $1 billion worldwide, is fascinating and nuanced. These are hugely expensive productions to mount, utilizing the most cutting-edge technology, and when they connect with the zeitgeist they result in a singular type of buzzy blockbuster – one that cashes in on nostalgia while also growing the Disney brand. But oftentimes, these attempts come across as crass and cynical, less a creative endeavor than a kind of uncanny synergistic alignment. These movies can feel like they’re assembled more than made; you can almost hear them creak under the weight of corporate priorities and market-researched callbacks. (The Lion King made so muchmoney, even if it merely felt like the original film in CGI drag.) All of which makes Cruella, debuting on Disney+ and in theaters on May 28, such a welcome surprise – this is easily the best live-action remake Disney has made yet, one that acknowledges the film(s) that came before it while also blazing its own distinctive path. It has wit, personality, visual texture; things that have been missing from previous remakes. And it might wind up being the most wickedly fun film of the summer.
Cruella is an origin story of sorts, unencumbered by much of what went on in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and begins when the famous puppy-tormenter was a mere child herself named Estella. She was much more fabulous than the other kids in working-class England in the mid-1960s; she just had to rebel. And after a tragic accident leaves her orphaned, she travels to London, where she falls in line with a pair of petty criminals and worships a fashion designer named the Baroness (Emma Thompson). As she grows up, the now young-adult Estella (Emma Stone) uses her fashion prowess to pull off more elaborate schemes with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (a scene-stealing Paul Walter Hauser), eventually working under the Baroness at her London fashion house. When the truth about that family tragedy is revealed, Estella’s schemes take on a different tenor, and the woman we known as Cruella gradually takes shape.
Even those with a passing knowledge of the classic Disney animated film will know where the story will wind up but getting there is frequently surprising and often incredibly moving. Stone is a perfect Cruella, not only for the way she vamps in some of the more over-the-top sequences, chewing scenery with reckless aplomb, but in all the subtle ways that she grounds the character in relatable emotional terrain. There’s one moment where she’s giving a soliloquy, the camera holding, unblinking, on her face, and it is just as profound and pyrotechnical as any of the big set pieces. A lot of actresses could play Cruella as an over-the-top villainess; only a handful could give her that dimensionality. She’s not paper-thin anymore.
And as much praise should be heaped upon director Craig Gillespie, an incredible talent who most recently directed Margot Robbie in the Oscar-winning I, Tonya and who before that made a series of movies for Disney that were wholly underappreciated and overlooked (3D adventure The Finest Hours, real-life sports drama Million Dollar Arm, and with Touchstone the horror comedy remake Fright Night). Gillespie, finally taking center stage for a jewel in one of Disney’s most prized crowns, makes the most of it – you can feel him in the way that the camera moves through a department store, and how he stages the calamitous, large-scale scenes of destructive chaos. And the look of the movie, working with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, almost feels like the aesthetic of the original One Hundred and One Dalmatians, with its “hairy” linework a product of the then-revolutionary Xerography technology that allowed artists’ original drawings to be photocopied directly to the cels. (It was the only way they could have a movie with so many dogs and so many spots.) Cruella is easily the most visually distinct of the live-action Disney remakes and the one with the most singular, identifiable personality. Working off a script that had been handled by everyone from Saving Mr. Banks scribe Kelly Marcel to Tony McNamara, who wrote Stone’s The Favourite, Gillespie is able to synthesize the demands of this type of story (tell us why she hates dalmatians) will all new elements born wholly from this version. It’s a highwire act that he somehow flawlessly pulls off.
(We must pause a moment to give a shout-out to the performers, who understand the assignment perfectly and who add so much to Cruella. Thompson is obviously a tremendous performer and the comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada feel justified but also a little superficial. She’s more like Reynolds Woodcock reimagined as a Disney villain. And Fry and Hauser, as Cruella’s right-hand men, alternate between pathos, comedic relief, and all-out villainy. Also Kayvan Novak and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Roger and Anita, will definitely put a smile on your face.)
At 134 minutes, Cruella might be too long for some (especially when you consider the animated original clocked in at just over an hour) and occasionally Nicholas Brittell’s beautiful, delicate score can get lost amongst the onslaught of very expensive pre-punk needle drops, but these are minor quibbles. The runtime feels, for the most part, justified, and those extra minutes are filled with lovable character moments and additional detail. And you can savor the music, which has a nifty choral component, on the original score album (out now).
Cruella, truly devilish, shows you what these Disney remakes are capable of if they are handed to a genuine artist and allowed to experiment and play. Too often these films feel as though they are checking boxes and simply making sure that they are delivering what the company feels audiences are nostalgic for. With a film like this, divorced from its source material by many decades (and already established as ripe fodder for reinvention, as the 1996 film proved), it was able to use the original as a blueprint but focused more on building everything else from scratch. Yes, it’s recognizable, but the familiarity never gets in the way of the invention. And that is Cruella’sbiggest gift. Like a great fashion line, it’s understandable but electrically new.