The Movie Guru: “Cruella” an unexpected (and puppy murder-free) delight
I'll admit, I wasn't looking forward to "Cruella."
Like the rest of America, I groaned audibly when the first trailers came out. Of all the Disney villains to get the #girlboss treatment, the one whose entire character hinged on the murder of puppies seemed like one of the worst options. It felt both uninteresting and deeply problematic at the same time, and when the screening came I gritted my teeth and prepared to suffer.
Which is why I was so shocked when “Cruella” turned out to be really, really good. More importantly, she’s no longer on the road to puppy murder.
Instead, she’s a wonderfully eccentric, wildly theatrical criminal with something of a mean streak who’s bent on revenge. Opening this weekend in theaters and on Disney+ with premiere access, “Cruella” makes small but important tweaks to the titular character that let us more fully enjoy all of the character’s “fun villain” potential without making her the kind of person we have to hate. The rest of the movie gives her the kind of criminal mayhem she deserves, propelled by amazing performances by Emma Stone and the rest of the cast. Taken all together, it’s easily the best live-action adaptation of an established work that Disney has ever done.
The movie starts when Cruella is a child, briefly speeding through an interesting and mildly traumatic childhood before landing her in her early 20s. She’s a career criminal who really wants to be a fashion designer, but when secrets about her past are revealed she starts on a path of vengeance that will change her life forever.
The entire movie is a delicate balancing act that keeps Cruella “bad” without actually turning her into someone evil. It actually refers to the potential for puppy murder, then carefully arranges circumstances to the point that her actions in “101 Dalmatians” seem impossible. They made more changes to her relationship with Jasper and Horace, who were her henchmen in the original but here fall more into the category of found family. They still help her commit crime, but they do it because they care about her.
And oh, there’s so much crime. “Cruella” is the perfect mix of a heist film and “The Devil Wears Prada,” with high-stakes fashion rivalry sprinkled in through robbery, sabotage, kidnapping, arson, both attempted and actual murder, and some of the most delightful cons I’ve seen in a movie in far too long. Nearly everyone in this movie has no trouble engaging in illegal acts, but since Cruella’s nemesis is so genuinely ruthless and unpleasant there’s no question who should win.
Don’t worry that Cruella has been de-fanged, though. Emma Stone plays her with a kind of unhinged, furious hunger for life that we so rarely get to see in a protagonist. It’s exactly the kind of performance that always makes villains so appealing, but here there’s no large-scale murder to get in the way. She just causes problems on purpose, and haven’t we all wanted to do that at some point?
It’s part of what makes “Cruella” such an unexpected delight. As long as no actual puppies die, I’d happily sacrifice “101 Dalmations” to get more.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.