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Review: 'Cruella' (2021) Dir. Craig Gillespie

Updated: May 29

Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Mark Strong, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Kayvan Novak

A live-action take on not just iconic Disney villainess Cruelle de Vil, but a look at what made a young girl with dreams and ambition become the twisted, Dalmatian-obsessed thief we know...


Estella (Stone) is a young girl navigating the ever-changing world of 1970s London. Using her quirky, rebellious outlook on life along with her desire for creativity and fashion, Estella lives confidently to hide her traumatic childhood.


Haunted by the loss of her mother at a young age, and in turn gaining a loathing of Dalmatian dogs, Estella lives with pick-pockets Jasper (Fry) and Horace (Hauser) who grew up together on the London streets learning to survive.


Estella soon catches the eye of fashion icon Baroness von Hellman (Thompson) who takes the girl under her wing. Their relationship soon sets wheels in motion that will shape Estella, Jasper and Horace into sly, sleek, notorious figures of London...

One of the darkest live-action Disney films goes back to where it all began for one of the studio's popular villains; Cruella de Vil. We are treated to a film that offers killer CGI Dalmatian dogs, plots of revenge of murder, sexy style and catwalk fashion, broken families and more. Not your usual Disney offering then, and one that doesn't really live up to what it sets out to do on the surface.


Emma Stone certainly has the passion and spunk for feisty Estella / Cruella, and this portrayal is certainly one that takes a different inspiration from the source material. Not as cunning as the original 1956 original, not as psychotic as the 1961 animation or as family friendly as the 1996 version. She's identifiable as a villainess in the making, but adds her own spin. This Cruella is vindictive, uptight and brattish. Those not a fan of Stone as a performer may not appreciate her rather "out-there" performance that chews up the script and scenery as a real pantomime villain you can't really take seriously.


Second Emma billed is Thompson, giving another wonderfully mature and prim performance as the inspiration to Cruella; Baroness von Hellman, with a character as tight as her cheekbones and relishing the power she holds over everyone beneath her. This subtle and delicious incarnation is what we really see a Cruella as, but we don't get it from Stone sadly in this origin where she has to find her way to even an ounce of what Hellman represents.


Our supporting cast includes Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry as thieves Horace and Jasper. Not as buffoonish as their animated incarnations, but taking a slightly different approach to add some soft heart and humour to their roles. A silent Mark Strong adds some class to proceedings, with smaller roles going to Emily Beecham and Kayvan Novak who help flesh out those who play a part in Cruella's journey.

Remove the soundtrack, make-up and costume design and you'll be hard-pressed to find memorable about this live-action offering that is far more style over substance.

Hair and makeup artist Nadia Stacey and two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan will be right back up there for award season with their contribution to this, probably the most memorable aspect of the film itself. The design of costumes worn by all sets the tone for a very different style of Disney live-action. Gorgeous gowns, frocks, sharp suits are ripped from the cat-walks and style is rampant from beginning to end. Set design is also both reflective of the worlds Estella and Cruella embody, a duality that continues throughout her journey with a rich and vibrant London as the backdrop.


Set in the culture defining 1970s London, the soundtrack is a sizzle reel of toe-tapping, rebellious and classic tunes. Mirror any sort of montage, chase sequence or fashion gala to songs by Queen, Blondie, The Clash or Nina Simone are guaranteed to make you forget what you see and relish what you hear. These moments are full of energy, wit and stylish cinematography that set it aside the rest.


Director Craig Gillespie presents a mixed offering for a Disney live-action story. While based on existing material and not serving as a remake or reboot, this origin lays down foundations that can linked to the Glenn Close 1996 and 2000 films. There are characters you'll know, some you won't, all teasing the future many know and love.


Yet, it's a little sloppy in offering a solid story or setting an engrossing pace. The back and forth between Stone's Estella and Cruella becomes tiresome, and it never makes you care for her the more story goes on. Not that she's evil, she just is a little...boring. You just want to get to the predictable ending where we see the teasing of what is to come, which is always a pay-off for origins. It just takes a long time to get there, flitting between dark drama, silly humour, revenge thriller and heist caper.

A few little twists along the way add some more padding to the origins of this fashionista, but it never really digs deep enough to find out more about this young woman and explore the inner demons within rather than gloss over them for emotional effect. There's still much to explore and uncover about what made this woman who she is when we see her in the 101 story; this is just the very tip of the iceberg, but rushes to tick all the origin boxes like where she gets her name, her car, her hatred of Dalmatians etc.


You get the feeling that the intent is there, but you never really know what this film wants to be as it jumps here and there in style and tone trying to conjure up all sorts of emotions and responses that never really hit the mark.

A real mixed offering of Disney live-action not aimed at the kiddies. It goes on a little too long and is far more memorable for the style over any substance, but certainly not for the CGI Dalmatians.




'Cruella' is a co-production between Walt Disney Pictures, Gunn Films and Marc Platt Productions


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