Review: Nuanced ‘Cruella’ is spot on addition to ‘Dalmatians’ franchise

Emma Stone in Cruella. (Courtesy Walt Disney Co.)

★★★★½ out of 5 -- Rated: PG-13 -- Run time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Back in 1996, Disney successfully released a live-action reboot of their 1961 animated classic, “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” followed in 2002 by “102 Dalmatians,” both starring the wonderful Glenn Close as the deliciously evil, puppy-hating “Cruella De Vil.” The studio is now going back further in time, to tell the origin story of one of Disney’s most memorable villains with “Cruella.” It’s a movie that finally explains her deep-seated issues with dalmatians. (And boy, do they run deep.)

Emma Stone (“La La Land,” “Birdman”) takes over the role in a story that is told in flashback with lots of narration. We first meet her as a young girl named Estella (played by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland from the TV series “Krypton”). A family tragedy results in her growing up on the streets of London in a period that looks to be a stylized version of the 1970s.

She teams up with a pair of grifters played by Paul Walter Hauser (“Richard Jewell”) and Joel Fry (“Yesterday”). A very successful thief, Estella also possesses a sense of style and desires a career in clothing design. She scores a job working for a big fashion house that’s led by the sarcastic, domineering and demanding Baroness von Hellma -- played to the hilt by Emma Thompson. A student-teacher relationship quickly evolves into an epic competition between the two women to see who will be top dalmatian, er…dog…in the London fashion scene.

Mark Strong as John the Valet and Emma Thompson as the Baroness in Disney’s live-action CRUELLA. (Photo by Laurie Sparham. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

The “Cruella” script features the work of multiple writers, including a screenplay by Dana Fox (“What Happens in Vegas”) and Tony McNamara. (“The Favourite”). The writers of the original story include Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the hilarious screenplay for “The Devil Wears Prada.” Elements from that story clearly inspired a lot of scenes in “Cruella,” which manages to give a crash course in fashion design as well as depicting the challenges of working for the boss from hell.

But making the biggest impact is director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl” and “I, Tonya”) who has infused the movie with an incredible visual style that crosses between being quasi-Gothic, but then depicts epic party scenes featuring lots of flash. There’s a lot going on in complex shots which were well-thought-out and executed. (Only some of which feature dogs.) The movie also has an almost non-stop parade of classic rock songs from artists like the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, the Animals, and Nancy Sinatra.

Emma Stone manages to walk the tightrope of playing a character who eventually becomes one of the screen’s most memorable villains but still has to inspire some sympathy. She’s surrounded by a strong cast that besides the before-mentioned actors, also includes Mark Strong (“The Kingsmen”) as the valet to the Baroness and Jon McCrea as the most flamboyant member of Cruella’s entourage.

Emma Stone (center). Paul Walter Hauser (far left). Joel Fry (right). (Courtesy Walt Disney Co.)

The movie wasn’t what I expected. Rated PG-13, it’s not really aimed at kids and if anyone is expecting a movie that’s focused on dalmatians, they’ll be disappointed. The spotted dogs in this film are secondary characters who aren’t the cute-and-cuddly pooches from the previous films.

This movie is much more nuanced, with themes of betrayal, loss, and getting even.

It’s like a cross between “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Joker.” At two hours and fourteen minutes, “Cruella” feels a little long but not by much. The creative team has managed to pull off an original, stylish, entertaining, and worthwhile addition to the “Dalmatians” franchise.