Cruella review – De Vil wears Prada in outrageous punk prequel

Aspiring fashionista Cruella is out for her boss’s skin in a riotous 101 Dalmatians origin-myth set in 70s London, starring Emmas Stone and Thompson in dynamic form

Kindly step back and make way for a sensational couple of Emmas: Stone and Thompson. Together, they are the highly strung dysfunctional double-act that post-lockdown cinema didn’t know it needed.

There’s an unexpectedly huge amount of old-fashioned fun to be had in Disney’s spectacular new origin-myth story from screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis, prebooting Cruella de Vil, the wicked dognapper from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She is now an icily supercool supervillain, and Stone gives it everything she’s got – which is a considerable amount – as Estella, a young orphan girl with a genetic quirk of black-and-white hair. I was hoping for some Susan Sontag gags, but you can’t have everything. She grows up in glam-rock London of the mid-1970s, a world of Izal loo paper, Ford Anglia police cars and Golden Wonder crisps, living in a Faginesque thieves’ lair presided over by two dodgy scallywags, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who took her in when she was a stroppy homeless waif and schooled her in the ways of thievery.

And Thompson gives it everything’s she’s got – which is a considerable amount, and then some – as an imperious fashion designer called the Baroness with a prestige outlet at Liberty’s department store in London’s stately West End. Young Estella idolises this aristocrat of couture because she wants to be a fashionista just like her. So when supportive Jasper and Horace fake her a CV, claiming that she played polo with Prince Charles, Estella nabs a Cruella-de-Vil-wears-Prada apprenticeship with this grande dame. But then she is consumed with a need to destroy her haughty mentor, to reinvent herself as a punk-genius brand-named “Cruella”; it’s all got something to do with Estella’s poor, well-meaning mum, played by Emily Beecham, and the Baroness’s ferocious three Dalmatians to which Estella takes a dislike.

It’s all extremely entertaining, although I do have to say that in these snowflakey days of emotional correctness and respect for animals, this movie rather fudges the whole question of Cruella actually wanting, now or in the future, to kill Dalamatians for their skins. Maybe there’s a bit too much Hannibal Lecter energy, because the film sidesteps and pirouettes around that bit of nastiness, which was a feature both of the 1961 animation and of course Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel. You’ll have to hang on for the post-credits sting by the way, but that just makes the animal “cruelty” in Cruella even more puzzling by implication.

Emma Thompson in Cruella.
Aristocrat of couture ... Emma Thompson in Cruella. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/AP

But what a lavish display, with repeated jukebox slams on the soundtrack keeping the movie’s blood-sugar levels high, although they didn’t use a certain Michael Jackson track which surely would have been perfect for a Dalmatians-themed film. The big screen is surely the place to marvel at the film’s digital recreation of London in the mid-70s, with top-notch work from costume designer Jenny Beavan and production designer Fiona Crombie, who lay on the outrageous accoutrements with a trowel. There are times when Cruella’s young womanhood is a mixture of Sleeping Beauty and Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Nowadays, there is hardly a classic female villain who hasn’t been reinvented or origin-mythed on a quasi-feminist basis. (Maybe the three witches in Macbeth should get this treatment, starring Millie Bobby Brown, Elle Fanning and Kirby Howell-Baptiste – who’s actually in this film, playing Estella’s smart mate, Anita.) But the politics of Cruella de Vil are more generational than sexual. She wants to be like her role-model heroine and then wipe her out. It’s not the dog’s skin Cruella wants to rip off and wear, it’s the Baroness’s. She wants to inhabit and destroy.

• Cruella is released on 28 May in cinemas and on Disney+.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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