Cruella, the latest live-action riff on an animated classic, is not your grandmother’s Disney movie. Hell, it’s not even Pirates of the Caribbean, with its splashes of violence and yo-ho-ho innuendo. It’s a delicious glam-rock, fashionista film about a bad seed with a good mother (Emily Beecham) who re-discovers her bad self in adulthood, long after mother has perished and her dream of becoming a fashion rock star has cemented herself among the chic elite of London. It’s got a delectable, triumphant performance from Emma Stone, equally indelible work by Emma Thompson as the villainous Baroness, stunningly outrageous costumes (like a dress resembling an avalanche of garbage), immaculate makeup and hairstyling work, and for a presumably silly IP tentpole, some wickedly auteurific camerawork from I, Tonya helmer Craig Gillespie. Cruella isn’t silly, however, even if it is a little bit campy. Nicholas Britell’s sublime musical stylings guarantee we never forget that this poppy, funny romp through the streets of 70’s London is really about a psychologically disturbed go-getter who’s destined to follow in her mother’s questionable footsteps, all the while trying as she might to do better and become more than her maker. As her lifelong friends and future henchmen, Joel Fry and the always riotous Paul Walter Hauser give tangible life to the animated picture’s buffoonish Jasper and Horace, a couple of petty criminals with a zest for life but a limited patience for real crime (see: murder). Together, alongside two cute canine partners-in-crime, they provide most of the comic relief.
Mark Strong pops up as a gopher for Thompson’s dictatorial designer queen, a woman who rules over Oxford Street with a silk and leather-clad fist. Among the many shops lining the street is a vintage apparel store frequented by Cruella, and ran by the ever-amusing Artie (John McCrea), Disney’s first openly gay original character. When Gillespie’s camera dives through a skylight into the bowels of a clothing outlet, dollying around ornate displays and spick-and-span hallways to find Estella (her real name) scrubbing the floors for her initial foot-in-the-door job, all set to an iconic “Time of the Season” by the Zombies, it’s enough style to make you smile from ear to ear. By the time Cruella the woman is one-upping the Baroness at every turn, with dresses that blow away the presses (and us), Cruella the movie has us in the palm of its hand, wondering how Gillespie and co. were able to convince a company as risk-averse and prudish as Disney to produce something so stylish and demented. This is a movie where Emmas go to war and one of them dances in darkness with a whiskey decanter to “These Boots Are Made For Walkin,” a Nancy Sinatra song likely invisible to today’s tween ones. And never mind the clunky opening, with overly cutesy computer-generated doggos running alongside mediocre child actors for the sole purpose of setting up Estella’s origin in unnecessary fashion. It’s a mere ten minutes until Ms. Stone graces the screen and captivates us for two hours. Briefly terrible green screen effects notwithstanding, this is the best live-action Disney adaptation ever made, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
P.S. Watch for a piano-playing lawyer and a local reporter whose names fans will instantly recognize.