Disney undoubtedly spared little expense realizing the collective visions of director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara. 1970s London has seldom looked more alive or so vividly rendered as it is here. Every detail from the period architecture to the couture fashion to the rock-tinted soundtrack feels so authentic, and very little of it rendered through CGI. It’s all there on screen with mostly old fashioned filmmaking techniques, and – shock – it’s actually in service of a larger theme.
At times, Gillespie and his camera seem to abandon the story altogether and make sweet visual love to the sets. Several shots boast a high replay value, particularly one in which the camera tilts from street level into the sky and through a skylight to reveal the multiple layers of Liberty’s of London. As it glides through the store and surveys the dozens of employees therein, you want to pause the film just to soak in the details.
On that level, Cruella wildly succeeds. Toss in towering performances from Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, and you have the hit of the summer. But it isn’t quite that easy.
Cruella stars Stone as Estella (later, naturally, Cruella), an orphaned girl who uses her natural fashion sense to rise in the ranks of the House of Baroness (Thompson). To accomplish visually stunning feats of fashion anarchy, she enlists the help of two bumbling petty criminals, Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser), and some incredibly cinematic dogs. As Cruella becomes increasingly bold in her designs and in her in-your-face revolt against the establishment, The Baroness becomes increasingly ruthless in her attempts to destroy Cruella.
I use the word “destroy” because it connotes the perfect amount of soapy camp on display here. Exactly what you’d expect from what’s essentially a caper film about the 1970s London fashion industry.
Emma Stone hasn’t had this much fun with a role in a very long time. The part of Cruella requires an actress to essentially create two different people: the black and the white halves of a single soul. Stone achieves that admirably in addition to creating a character about which we care a great deal. We all know which half of her soul survives, but my personal predisposition to hating prequels didn’t necessarily mind the journey. As her foil, Emma Thompson wrings every note of contempt and undeserved supremacy from her line readings. Casting Thompson was a stroke of genius as she not only gives a more-than-worthy adversary, but she also inhabits these roles like the consummate pro that she is.
And there are the crafts, those incredibly beautiful crafts, that more than set the stage. They help tell the story of these two personalities waging war. Establishment versus anarchy. Tradition versus ingenuity. New versus old. Bad versus… less bad. It’s all there in every detail from the stifling black and white House of Baroness to the shabby chic of Cruella’s workshop. It all works beautifully in an Oscar-worthy harmony of crafts in service of a theme – something incredibly rare today.
So why doesn’t the entire film feel as revelatory as the crafts or the performances?
Primarily, it’s about 20 minutes too long. There are so many great sequences and set pieces that work beautifully, but they’re interspersed with a handful of dull, languid sequences of dialogue. Gillespie is a very talented director, and he makes every attempt to juice things up. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And we haven’t exactly seen – no spoilers intended – how this version of Cruella becomes the “Let’s make a coat out of dogs” villain we love to hate.
Still, Cruella should be seen on a large screen with theater speakers barking that wonderful 70s soundtrack. If it’s a little long here and there, then it’s something I’m willing to forgive. Disney could have very easily created a by-the-numbers origin story, but this film took extraordinary effort and tells a female-centered story in interesting ways. Modern film just doesn’t often give us broad entertainments elevating their filmmaking techniques like this anymore. So, I’ll take a languid film set in this world any day.
Cruella drops today in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access.