One eventful day defined Estella’s (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) life. In less than twenty-four hours, the precious preteen with the distinctive mop of black and white hair, got kicked out of an upscale private school, snuck into a fashion show and thought, “for the first time in my life, I feel like I belong,“ and developed a lifelong hatred of Dalmatians. I won’t say why, but she does have a good reason to harbor animosity toward the spotted dogs. Most tragically, she lost her mother that same day.
Cut loose and alone, she lands in 1964 London. Falling in with petty thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), Estella (now played by Emma Stone) forms an impromptu family, pulling off scams using disguises designed and made by her own hand.
Still, she’s not satisfied. “I want to be a professional designer,” she says, “not a thief.”
Securing an entry level job at an upscale department store, she gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a cruel, imperious clothing designer who says things like, “Gratitude is for losers.” She is the undisputed matriarch London fashion and will crush anyone who gets in her way.
As Estella rises through the ranks, she becomes aware of a connection between The Baroness and the death of her mother. Until then, she believed she was responsible for her mother’s passing and had gone through the five stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Now she adds a sixth stage, revenge.
“I’m starting to remember that you have an extreme side,” says Estella’s old friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste).
Determined to ruin The Baroness, break her spirit, her confidence and her business. Estella creates an alter ego, the disruptive Cruella. In a series of staged public stunts Cruella humiliates The Baroness and becomes the darling of the fashion world. “Some call her a designer,” a TV talking head breathlessly reports, “some call her a vandal.”
As the “mad, bad and just a little bit sad” Cruella’s antics escalate, Estella’s personality grows fainter. “I’m not sweet Estella, try as I might. I’m Cruella.”
“Cruella” has lots going for it. Great costume design, a rippin’ soundtrack and arch attitude, but by the time the end credits roll, it is all about the dueling Emmas, Stone and Thompson.
“Wow,” says Cruella. “You really are a psycho. “How nice of you to say,” The Baroness snaps back.
Both hand in flamboyant performances that capture the wickedly humorous tone of the story.
Stone’s performance straddles the line between her two characters as Estella’s attempts to fit into the regular world fade, as bits and pieces of Cruella’s anything goes mentality filter through until she goes full-on baddie. The punk rock-glam inspired clothes help in the transformation, but the heart comes from Stone, who does something difficult, bring a tragic heart to a villain.
As The Baroness, Thompson is the is the Queen of the Side Eye. It’s a wonderfully comedic performance, equal parts disdain, evil and ridiculous, she redefines arrogance. Think “The Devil Wears Prada” with a sharper edge. It’s the kind of work you want to watch at least twice to catch all the small bits of business she weaves into the performance.
Propelled by the performances and a music-heavy soundtrack featuring everything from The Doors and Nina Simone to Iggy & The Stooges (this must be the first Disney film to feature the proto-punk tune “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and Tina Turner, “Cruella” rocks along at a clip until it loses steam near the end as it prepares itself for the sequel.
Until then, however, “Cruella” is the most audacious of the recent live action reimaginings of a classic Disney character.