The headlines for this one write themselves. The film is a backstory for Dodie Smith and Disney’s famous villain where we get to see her softer side as she comes up against the mean and unscrupulous fashion executive she is working for. ‘De Vil Wears Prada’ and ‘Sympathy for the De Vil’ are the most obvious two and sure enough the latter is the closing track of the movie. Of course a sophisticated writer would steer clear of such lazy puns.
Still, speak of the De Vil; this appears to be the latest in the Mouse House’s long list of live action films where they are looking to mine their own back catalogue for box office gold. While this strategy has certainly paid off, few of the resulting movies have been great but this one is more successful precisely as it isn’t really a part of this ever expanding initiative, at least not a new part. Cruella isn’t so much a retelling of any aspect of 1961’s animated feature 101 Dalmatians as much as it is a prequel to the film that started this whole trend; 1996’s Glenn Close movie 101 Dalmatians. For a start this kicks off with our antihero as a child in the 60s when the original saw the character as an adult a decade earlier but it also feels more in keeping with the remake. It would be nice if the studio was giving us new material, of course, but I guess they figured better the De Vil you know.
Interestingly, considering all of the source material, Cruella is not really a children’s film. It is darker and significantly less slapstick than what has come before with themes of betrayal of murder (and not of puppies). It isn’t quite Return to Oz but this is definitely a contrast to its sweet predecessor. The film is rated 12A and is certainly aimed at an audience of teens and above. While this decision may be surprising though, it is spot on because sheared of its innocence and cutsieness Cruella is able to spin a yarn of grifters, revenge and professional rivalries that is absolutely delightful.
The trick was always going to be in creating a relatable and likeable character out of one of cinemas most black and white monsters and they do this by not cleaving too close to Close. Emma Stone while absolutely the De Vil incarnate is doing her own thing and the film may not even be a prequel to what we’ve seen previously. It could be if you are happy with the idea of this lady turning into a callous dog killer but if not then you can just consider this a reimagining. What is clever here is that they have left this up to the viewer without having to clumsily rewrite everything as they did with Maleficent. Stone, it has to be said, is brilliant as a kind of terrorist clothes designer out to humiliate and destroy her rival The Baroness for reasons beyond the commercial. The set pieces and the dresses involved are also superb (oh my god, the frocks are amazing) and the story which sees the girl rise to the top with a mix of masks (De Vil in Disguise) and good fortune (luck of the De Vil) is tight and utterly compelling.
Some quarters of the UK press have happily proclaimed that Emma Thompson as the badder than bad Baroness steals the movie but I feel this might come from a desire to herald our own and not to give the crown to the younger American. As it is, both actors are excellent and they bounce off one another wonderfully. Elsewhere there are good turns from Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser who give established henchmen Jasper and Horace some nice motivations of their own and Kirby Howell-Baptiste provides Anita Darling a tiny edge that she never had as played by Lisa Davis or Joely Richardson. Emily Beecham gives the kind of subtle performance she excels at (see her acting an OTT Lily James off the screen in the BBC’s Pursuit of Love on iPlayer now) and check out the actor playing Wink because he really could be the best in show.
Despite all possible expectation Cruella is a triumph then. It is fun and raucous, smart and massively entertaining. Director Craig Gillespie approaches this with the same sense of edgy glee he gave I, Tonya and the result is a treat. I for one am a De Vil’s advocate. I appreciated the De Vil in the details and was happy to dance with the De Vil. Yep, it genuinely felt as though Disneyzebub had a De Vil put aside for me.
Okay, I’ll stop now. Idle hands and all that.