Early on in Cruella, a character says, "'normal' is the cruelest insult of them all, and at least I never get that." This is perhaps a fitting description of the film too. The Emma Stone starrer isn't afraid of going into darker territories, without ever losing its glamorous sheen.
The origin story of an evergreen Disney villain, Cruella is set in London during the 70's. The film opens in the 1950's, where a young Estella is bullied for being different – her fringed hair is half-black and half-white. She decides to conquer her bullies. A lot of it plays out as your cookie-cutter anti-bullying school drama, but the makers snap out of it quickly.
After a tragic incident, Estella resorts to pickpocketing, despite having an immense talent for fashion designing. A few twists and dirty toilets later, she lands a job with a fashion icon, whom we know as The Baroness.
The film has galas and parties, dresses made of gold and garbage bags. It doesn't use fashion as an accessory, but rather chooses to make it an important asset that enhances the screenplay. Every scene is breathtaking to look at; the production and costume design, marvellous. But as I watched the film, I almost forgot to observe the little details because the storytelling is consistently engaging. Unlike the production house's recent other live-action works, Cruella has a plot behind all the gloss that is both solid and immersive.
Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Dana Fox, Kelly Marcel, Steve Zissis and Tony McNamara take their time to set the world up. However, it's still very entertaining because there's always a lot going on screen. Sometimes, too much. For a children's movie, Cruella is long at 133 minutes, but it's always gripping and often subversive. For example, in a scene where Estella finally impresses her employer, the Baroness, the latter responds with "You are… something." It's a little moment in a film that's packs in a lot, but it's refreshing because most other movies would've resorted to the protagonist being called a genius by their hard-to-please boss in a scene like this.
This is also a film that celebrates its pomp and extravagance. Despite being clueless about fashion, I spent a lot of time watching ramp-walk videos and understanding London's vogue culture after watching the film.
It is in the second half where Cruella decides to shift its tone. But director Craig Gillespie handles it so well that it isn't a hinderance at all. Estella's transformation is a thing of beauty. As she begins to settle in her own skin, you see the film's paradigm shift. Emma Stone is astonishing in the central role. Every eye-roll is measured, every laugh controlled. It's a magnificent, rip-roaring performance that elevates (the very occasional) clunky bits. Stone's namesake, Emma Thompson doesn't have as much to work with but she's equally good as The Baroness. There is a chilling quality about veteran's piercing gaze, and she's intimidating and commanding; matching Stone step for step. Cruella also benefits from a supporting cast that performs ably. I especially enjoyed Paul Walter Hauser's performance as Horace, Estella's fellow pickpocket.
There are fleeting patches which come off as contrived and convenient. As Estella transforms, the lines between right and wrong begin to blur, and for a moment or two it feels like the makers are losing their hold over the story. Somewhere in the middle, you feel like the film is running out of steam. But that feeling doesn't last for long. These are minor hurdles but they stand out because of how consistently effective the screenplay is otherwise.
Ultimately though, Cruella is a beast of its own, quite literally. It's dazzling and decadent, blending style with substance. It's also topped with a delicious lead performance that gives us a super-villian for the ages.