We’re not even halfway through the Disney villain origins story “Cruella” when this much is clear: If this movie DOESN’T win Academy Awards for best makeup and hairstyling and best costume design, I can’t wait to see what tops it.
While overlong and at times too self-conscious in its quest for period-piece hipster status, “Cruella” is a visual feast, from the dizzying array of outfits designed and worn by Emma Stone’s Estella/Cruella to some striking, glam-inspired makeup to dazzling set pieces with dozens of extras wearing amazing ensembles. Reynolds Woodcock from “Phantom Thread” would pass out from the sheer overwhelming number of scenes involving fashion design, discussion of fashion design, more fashion design – and pop-up fashion events taking place during traditional fashion events. This is a VERY fashionable film.
It’s also funny and ridiculous and dark and occasionally meandering, clocking in at 2 hours and 14 minutes when 110 minutes or so might have been a better fit. Especially in the final half-hour, events are stretched to the limits and we’re hearing exposition when we don’t need any further clarification. Still, the talented director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “I, Tonya”) has delivered a clever, devilishly offbeat story with appropriately over-the-top and wildly entertaining performances from Emma Stone as the titular character and Emma Thompson as her nemesis, who is so casually cruel (in a manner of speaking), so cold and cunning, she makes Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” look like the Employer of the Year.
“Cruella” takes us all the way back to the arrival of a newborn baby named Estella who has a curious shock of hair – half-black, half-white – and a penchant for acting out. When her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham), drops off 12-year-old Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) for her first day at a new school, she cautions Estella not to let the “Cruella” side of her personality get the better of her – but Estella’s efforts to play nice don’t last through the first day, as she’s the frequent target of bullying, and she fights back with a vengeance.
After an unspeakable tragedy leaves Estella all alone with only her faithful dog Buddy by her side, the girl winds up in London, where she teams up with a couple of Dickensian orphans named Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald), who support themselves via pickpocketing and small-time thievery. They’re a scrappy bunch, eh, govnah?
Cut to a decade later, and we’re smack-dab in swinging 1970s London, with Estella (now played by Emma Stone), Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) still rip-off artists and still the best of friends. Estella is holding on to her dream of becoming a fashion designer, and she eventually lands a job working for the legendary and legendarily monstrous designer known as The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a demanding taskmaster with three menacing Dalmatians constantly by her side. Oooooh, she’s the worst, which makes for fantastic fun.
“Cruella” often has the rhythms of a musical, with director Gillespie pulling off one elaborate comedy/action sequence after another, accompanied by a Billboard chart roster of pop and rock tunes, from “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones to “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ ” by Nancy Sinatra to “Car Wash” by Rose Royce to “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash. (There’s a sensational, “Goodfellas”-esque tracking shot set to “Time of the Season” by the Zombies.) The film has the madcap tone and pop-music vibe of Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver,” and the combo platter of pop tunes and popping visuals is entertaining as hell, though the gimmick veers close to wearing out its welcome.
Estella’s transition from an essentially likable underdog to an ambitious, ruthless and borderline psychotic villain-in-training is rather abrupt – but it’s explained by certain plot developments we won’t reveal. Emma Stone seems to be having a lot of fun playing Estella, but it looks like she’s having the time of her life playing the increasingly wicked Cruella, who becomes an underground fashion design star in the West End with her bold vision and attention-getting stunts, even as she plots her revenge against The Baroness.
Stone and Thompson are magical together as they verbally spar, while Joel Fry gives a winning performance as Jasper, who is clearly in love with Estella, and Paul Walter Hauser provides comic relief as the hapless but loyal Horace. Mark Strong is his usual reliable self as The Baroness’ longtime valet, who has a trick or two up his sleeve, while John McCrea is warm and funny and quick as Artie, who runs a cutting-edge fashion store and has a look and style inspired by David Bowie.
There’s a LOT going on in “Cruella,” and we haven’t talked much about the Dalmatians, who do play a key role in the story – as well they should. (There’s also a midcredits scene sure to delight anyone who remembers the 1961 animated version or the 1996 live-action telling of “101 Dalmatians.”)
Even as Cruella’s heart turns colder, we understand where she’s coming from. The world can be cruel, and Cruella would tell you she’s merely adapting to it.