Warning: This review contains plot spoilers. If you have not already seen Cruella and don’t like spoilers, please don’t read any further (but feel free to bookmark this page to read later).
It’s not an easy feat to take a character as iconic as Cruella de Vil and breathe new life into her, but Emma Stone does so with vim and vigor. It also takes a not-insignificant amount of chutzpah to fill shoes (quite stylish shoes, I might add) once worn by Glenn Close. While Emma Stone’s Cruella is sly and sardonic like her celluloid predecessor, she also has this controlled sort of manic energy that just simmers on the screen. Also, I can’t remember the last time I saw someone have so much fun in a role and that alone is probably the highest compliment anyone could pay any actor in any role ever. In my opinion, Emma Stone was born to play Cruella de Vil, and if you disagree with me…well, let’s just say you should make sure I don’t have access to a cliffside balcony and a trio of Dalmatian attack dogs.
When the film begins, we see young Estella Miller struggling to fit in. Her half-white, half-black hair makes her a favorite target of the schoolyard bullies who are always ready to pounce on anyone who deviates from the norm in any way whatsoever. To her credit, she fights back with the same level of passion and fortitude that she will later bring to her work in fashion design. Not everyone appreciates her fighting spirit, though, least of all her school’s headmaster. Once Estella racks up several demerits, her mother Catherine is called in for a conference. The headmaster intends on telling Catherine that Estella is being expelled, but she withdraws her before that can happen (let’s just say it was a horse race).
On their way to London and a fresh start for them both, Catherine stops at a sprawling manse to ask someone (The Baroness, we later learn) for money. Catherine implores Estella to stay inside the car (read: out of trouble), but all of us know what it’s like to be young and boisterous, chomping at the bit to explore. Estella leaves the car and sneaks into the party where she is quickly made the target of The Baroness’s three large Dalmatians. They chase Estella outside and across the grounds, ending by pushing Catherine over the edge of the cliffside balcony to her death.
Alone, motherless, and wracked with guilt over her role (or what she thinks was her role) in her mother’s gruesome death, Estella finishes making her way to London and inadvertently makes friends with two other street kids, Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). The three youngsters, bound together by their mutual hard luck, poverty, and orphan status, become a chosen family for one another. They also become world-class pickpockets. If grifting were a professional sport, Estella, Horace, and Jasper would win Olympic gold.
Years later, all grown up, the three lovable vagrants are still making a living together thieving and scheming. Estella, more stylish than ever, hones her craft by designing the group’s disguises. For her birthday, Horace and Jasper secure Estella a job at Liberty’s, an upper crust department store that caters exclusively to wealthy clientele. Their motto may as well be, “If you have to ask the price, darling, you can’t afford it.” Estella is simply bursting with creative energy, but her talents go unseen and she is relegated to doing janitorial work. It’s honest work and someone has to do it, but Estella was born to be a designer. Some might say it’s in her blood.
Fed up and surly, Estella stays in Liberty’s overnight after her shift and drunkenly redecorates a window display in punk rock couture. It is avant-garde, edgy, and completely offensive to her manager, who fires her on the spot. However, in a bit of luck for Estella, The Baroness (Emma Thompson) makes a visit to the department store just as she is quite literally being given the boot.
The Baroness informs the manager that she loves the window display and that it’s the first truly innovative bit of merchandising she’s seen from them in some time. Those aren’t her exact words but you get the picture. She finds out that Estella is responsible for the display and offers her a job. The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
Estella excels in her new position and manages to impress The Baroness, who is notorious for having impeccable taste and impossibly high standards. If this were a different sort of film and not an origin story for one of Disney’s most iconic villains, Estella might continue impressing The Baroness and making waves in the fashion world. She’d completely disavow a life of crime and vice and move on up the ladder to become one of the most highly-regarded figures in fashion. Perhaps she may even venture over into fashion journalism and enjoy a life and career similar to that of Anna Wintour. Who knows? But things don’t work out quite that way.
One day while Estella is acting in the capacity of The Baroness’s gopher, she notices her wearing a necklace that she distinctly remembers as having belonged to her mother, Catherine. When Estella inquires about it, The Baroness claims that a former employee had previously stolen it. Knowing better and incensed at The Baroness, Estella enlists Horace and Jasper to help her steal it back, for in all honesty it does rightfully belong to her. Estella makes plans to steal it back at The Baroness’s Black and White Ball. To conceal her true identity from The Baroness, Estella creates an alter-ego: Cruella. And thus a star is born.
She wears a vintage design (in red, so subversive!) of The Baroness’s that she purchases from a vintage clothing store and upstages The Baroness at her own event. While she’s wowing the crowd and intimidating The Baroness, Horace and Jasper are playing their parts to retrieve Catherine’s necklace from the vault. What they didn’t plan for, but the audience should have guessed, is that The Baroness is wearing the necklace at the Ball.
[A brief aside: Artie (John McCrea), the proprietor of the vintage clothing store where Estella buys her outfit for the Black and White Ball, is gayer than a picnic basket and I am holding my breath for Disney to make it canon.]
Jasper, thinking quickly on his feet, sets free a mischief of rats which throw the crowd into a state of pandemonium. Amidst the confusion, Estella/Cruella swipes the necklace from The Baroness’s throat. When The Baroness notices her necklace is gone, she summons her Dalmatians with a dog whistle. This triggers a memory for Estella, and the revelation that follows changes everything she thought she knew about her life, her deceased mother, and The Baroness. This is the part of the movie where the lines between Estella and Cruella really begin to blur. Originally, Cruella was just a costume, an assumed identity. Estella never meant for Cruella to become all that she became. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Needless to say, The Baroness is upset by Cruella’s stunt at her Ball and even more upset that some nubile neophyte would be audacious enough to try to claim her throne. No industry veteran likes to have their position threatened by a talented young upstart, and in this regard The Baroness is no exception. She is vicious, conniving, and glamorous, and she will do anything to maintain her place at the top. As I was watching Cruella, Emma Thompson’s Baroness kept giving me Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada vibes. Not for nothing, since I later did some research and saw that Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada, also wrote the original screenplay for Cruella. Cruella’s script went through a couple rounds of revisions and the final screenplay is credited to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, but at least some of that Prada energy infused by McKenna made it into the shooting script because Emma Thompson is like Meryl Streep’s equally ruthless and disdainful cousin.
It’s really fun to watch the power play between Estella and The Baroness unfold. The more Estella-as-Cruella is able to get away with without being detected, the more emboldened and powerful she feels. This power manifests itself in her stunning creations, and with each new piece she gets better and better. There’s something about losing your fears and shedding your inhibitions that makes your wildest dreams possible. When you aren’t afraid, nothing can really hurt you. The deeper in she gets, though, the more Estella starts to figure out. And there’s one revelation in particular that will break her open, and may even cost her life.
Cruella was released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures on May 28th, 2021 and is available to own, stream, or rent from various platforms and retailers.
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