This review of Cruella originally ran to coincide with the film’s theatrical release and launch as a Premiere Access rental release. It has been updated to reflect the film’s general release on Disney Plus.
Of all the Disney villains out there, Cruella De Vil has perhaps the most simple motivation: she wants a luxurious spotted coat, and she is willing to murder a lot of puppies to get it. That’s true in the 1956 novel, the 1961 animated movie, two Disney live-action movies, the Disney Channel Original franchise The Descendants, and her appearance in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. She is persistent and consistent about her love of fur, which is part of the reason she works so well as a villain.
Cruella De Vil isn’t necessarily a character who requires an in-depth backstory — what more do you need to know besides the fact that she’s willing to kill puppies? — but with Cruella, from I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie, the iconic villainess gets the origin-story treatment. And even though his film is dragged down by its criminally long runtime and weirdly sympathetic sob story, Cruella is a delightful romp full of fashionable heists and over-the-top theatrics. Does it work as an origin story for a familiar villain? Not really, but it’s a pretty damn fun time.
[Ed. note: This review contains minor setup spoilers for Cruella.]
Cruella follows mild-mannered fashionista-wannabe Estella (Emma Stone) as she navigates a tragic childhood and eventually lands a job at a design house in 1960s London. Her new employer is the notorious fashion mogul the Baroness (Emma Thompson), who’s basically The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly, but without any semblance of a moral compass. After Estella discovers how the Baroness wronged her in the past, she concocts a plan to usurp the Baroness’s empire — and that means indulging in her vile, conniving side, which her mother treated as an independent visitor named “Cruella.” Together with her friends Jasper (In The Earth’s Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), Estella transitions to her Cruella identity and whips up increasingly elaborate plans to take down the Baroness.
The movie’s entire first half hour is completely unnecessary. There are a lot of scenes of Estella as a child (with her funky black-and-white hair), but none of them ever really pay off. Most of what she sets up through action and voiceover could be handled with a few lines of dialogue, or a single flashback. But Gillespie gives us enough of child-Cruella to flesh out a completely separate movie. Tonally, that first act feels like one, too — a sort of anti-Matilda where a precocious young girl pushes back at her bullies by being an even bigger bully, only to get kicked out of a posh private school. Then through a series of unfortunate events, she ends up living as a squatter in an abandoned building, surviving by committing petty crimes. That whole pre-origin-story origin story just drags the movie down, even if on its own it could make for a fun Disney Channel Original Movie.
But thankfully, once Estella starts working for the Baroness, the movie finds its footing. Even in the early parts, before Estella’s dark side takes over, the fashion-house antics are compelling, and they rapidly set up the stage for a designer showdown. As Cruella, she launches a crusade to finish the Baroness’s career once and for all, which means orchestrating increasingly complex fashion escapades as she plans the debut of her own fashion line. The heists are deliciously elaborate, the costumes gorgeously wacky, and Stone’s increasingly dramatic performance as Cruella is divine, as she drawls out her “darlings” and saunters with devilish elegance. It’s one ruse after another, each punctuated by moments of Estella working for the Baroness, before she fully embraces her inner villainess. While the middle part of the movie is certainly the most fun, the last heist is where all the little pieces of the grand Cruella De Vil persona come together impressively — but it’s also the moment where the movie undermines Cruella as a character.
Cruella is a memorable and lasting villain because of how unapologetically bad she is. But within this movie, all the bad things she does are posited as okay, because the target of her vengeance is even worse. The main problem isn’t that Cruella does some bad things — it’s actually that what she does isn’t nearly bad enough for a famous villain. She never really does anything too terrible, beyond some trespassing, vandalism, and theft. Sure, Cruella is mean to her lackeys, forceful to the people in her life, and incredibly conniving, but the jump from pointed revenge at one specific person to puppy-murderer never actually happens — it’s never even implied. Instead of unleashing the main character’s bad side in all its wicked, wild glory, the film saddles the villainess with a sob story. Cruella could be a compelling villain origin story, full of fashionable heists, fun performances, and a flair for the dramatic — that is, if Cruella actually turned into a villain.
Cruella is now streaming on Disney Plus.