• Nate Adams

Review: Emma Stone brings the style and heat in steampunk fever dream 'Cruella'


Courtesy of Disney

The biggest compliment anyone could give “Cruella” - the Craig Gillespie live-action adaptation of the iconic, storybook villain - is that it doesn’t have any feel or semblance of a Disney movie. In what might be the mouse house’s riskiest adaptation yet, a 1970s steampunk PG13 revenge caper set in the “101 Dalmation” universe, “Cruella” marks a creative and stylish rebound from the likes of two dreary “Maleficent” flicks and wobbly adaptations ala “Dumbo” and “Mulan:” films which desperately tried to be gritty reboots, but couldn’t shake away the far reaching hand that is the Disney machine. “Cruella” doesn’t succumb to its own ambitions, and though it runs a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes, it’s no surprise why Emma Stone choose this as he first post-Oscar vehicle: the chance to stamp her legacy on one of history's more prominent baddies (with a serrated, not entirely kid friendly, edge) aren’t opportunities afforded often.


And Stone doesn’t waste a second of screen-time stepping into the role, tackling an origin tale set in 1970s London that hardly anyone was asking for. As a young girl, Estella (Tipper Sifert-Cleveland) caused all types of ruckus and trouble for her mother (Emily Beecham) like getting booted from boarding school after taking one too many swipes at the local gang of prepubescent boys who thought getting a rise outta the new girl was fun. She’s guided by her trusty canine companion and dreams of becoming a prominent fashion designer though an unforeseen childhood tragedy leaves Estella shaken and alone. Years later, now played by Stone, she’s hustling on the streets, scavenging and stealing from locals with the help of Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) along with Wink, a tiny, eyepatch wearing, pup who cracks safes and creatively finds ways to get into impenetrable buildings.


Estella yearns for more than staying shacked up inside an abandoned loft, pickpocketing to make ends meet with two buffoons who can barely keep their heads on straight. She eventually secures an entry level position at a distinguished fashion warehouse where her off-the-cuff and incredibly unique designs catch the attention of the smarmy, devilish and utterly diabolical Baroness (played with pure camp and wince by the terrific Emma Thompson). Echoing the same energies as Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Stone and Thompson are a wealth of Oscar calibrated perfection: sneering and engaging in a slick game of cat-and-mouse when it’s revealed the Baroness and Estella have a deep, dark history.


“I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie unravels the events with flair, needle dropping several classic and emblematic songs (ranging from artists Queen, The Clash, The Doors to Ike & Tina Turner and The Bee Gees) that, occasionally, hit a little too hard on the nose and seem jukeboxy. (One tune is guaranteed to produce eyerolls, but it worked for me). In any case, the entire second act of “Cruella” gives us the rebirth, so to speak, of Estella as she tries to upend the Baroness's illustrious career, sporting the black and white hair and posh outfits (there’s not a world in which Jenny Beavan’s incredible costuming work doesn’t get award attention) made famous by Glenn Close in the original live-action remakes (Close has a producing credit here). Now going by the titular name, Estella crashes several galas and vandalizes the scene with her weird charm and photogenic personality, invoking a public spat that many will mistakenly compare to “Joker.”


The day may come when Disney delves into an R-rated tale featuring other catalog villains, but for the sake of “Cruella,” it’s interesting to have gotten this far. There’s no merchandising play (yet) or cheeky romantic subplot or forced CGI companions to undercut Stone and Thompson’s game performance (Fry and Hauser are also a hoot). Collectively, they infuse a breath of fresh air and clever intuitiveness to Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s screenplay who aren’t afraid to let their primary antagonist be bad and unashamed.


Grade: B+


CRUELLA opens in theaters and debuts on Disney+ premier access for a $30 fee starting Friday, May 28th.