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REVIEW – “Cruella” – Emma Stone Shines Darkly in Spot-Soaked Disney Origin Story

In the grand, often alluring tradition of Disney’s recent live-action track record, reimagining and reboots remain a vital element of keeping creative DNA fresh. To a degree, at least. The results have always been mixed, ranging from shameless near carbon-copy (The Lion King, Aladdin) to subtle formula-shatter (Lady and the Tramp), to different-minded origin stories (Maleficent). The first significant live-action feature bearing the Disney name to reach theaters in 18 months appears to look toward that latter third, proving for a step in the best direction. Be prepared to keep your eyes from going dry because Cruella has arrived. And it’s possible she may have subtly raised the bar just a little higher for all who come after to leap over.

Beforehand, it was Glenn Close immortalizing the lead character for the live-action realm in Stephen Herek’s straight-up port of 101 Dalmatians. Previously a still well-regarded animated gem in the later years of Walt’s life, and a legendary novel by Dodie Smith, the 1996 adaptation accomplished a certain location-accurate faithfulness. While also building a familiar template slow to ruminate, until Tim Burton refashioned Alice in Wonderland in his unique style. Close strolled about the streets of London twice, to pave the way for Emma Stone to run. And run she does, at top speed with furious veracity.

Before an iconic character can run, however, they must crawl to find their brilliance. As a youngster in the 60s, we see young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) trying to duke it out in public school, where her blazon streak of debauchery rears a rather ugly head. “Rough upbringing” is nothing short of an understatement, and she and her mother look to make names for themselves in the cutthroat fashion game. And in return, mom falls off a jagged cliff, to her death in true Disney fashion. All at the hands, or leash, of a pack of guard dalmatians.

Fast forward a decade later, we find Estella embracing her orphanhood with fellow small-time crooks Horace (Joel Fry) and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser). Enjoying a life of petty thievery to get by, it’s a joy for all three. But growing up takes a serious tone for the lady, getting a legit job at an uptight London department store. Her dual passions reach an almost insurmountable wall after a chance encounter with her icon, a woven fabric maven known simply as The Baroness (Emma Thompson), turns into an apprenticeship. Working under her wings should make for a standout marker on anyone’s resume. That is, until the Baroness bares her claws of competitive deception, knocking the wind out of the newfound Cruella’s sails just enough to roar even louder amid a cold-blooded fashion war.

Of course, it’s in just the right decade and the right place. Mid-70s High Street London offers a playground-like setting by which Craig Gillespie is clearly giddy to take advantage of. In his fourth film for the Mouse, after a pair of deeply human dramas and an excessively goofy horror remake (Fright Night), his first to follow in the footsteps of biopic I Tonya further broadens his sharp directorial bite. Cruella plays as front-loaded as a cinematic origin story could be, establishing its look and tone promptly and ferociously. And most importantly, distinguishing itself from past media. Tasteful CG dalmatians with feral instincts and minimal in-jokes in the third act aside, this is a completely different animal from a tale involving hand-drawn canines. It’s never about the dogs, and it’s difficult not to be a little thankful.

In that respect, it was a delight to see Estella’s onetime friend Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) carry an expanded role, as a naive journalist showing her loyalty to the Baroness. We see Roger (Kayvan Novak) as well, handing business affairs in between his freelance music dabbling. Horace and Jasper had the most effortless character departure. No longer easy fodder for slapstick, but sidekicks with thematic purpose. Hauser, especially, gets a high commendation taking mere bumbling to a new elevation of intelligence. Moreover, let’s try not to overlook Mark Strong as the Baroness’s valet John; he’s always a valuable utility player, and his presence here is no different.

From the first frame to last, Gillespie allows his punk rocker side to fly freely on visual strengths alone, echoing the cutthroat snark of Devil Wears Prada with the lyricism of Phantom of the Paradise. The overall production design handled by Fiona Crombie and makeup genius of Nadia Stacey, both of whom accentuated Stone’s on-screen presence once before on The Favourite, is a standout not to be overlooked. Completed by Jenny Beavan’s (Dolittle) wardrobe erudition, I wouldn’t be surprised at their early Oscar contender status. Call it a true treat for the peepers, as well as for the ears. Albeit with the caveat of utilizing period-accurate needle drops a little heavily, leaving too little space for Nicholas Brittell’s otherwise chilling score to breathe on screen. Either way, cinephiles may have just found their summer mixtape in a soundtrack ranging between Garland, Bowie, and a new Florence + The Machine cut.

If there were to be some quibbles, maybe it’s within the challenge itself to infuse a grunge, underground origin tale with an upbeat attitude. In a writer’s pool including the talents of Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic) among others, Cruella’s story is often starved of staying balanced on tonality, while aesthetics remain steady. One end we have a misunderstood soul finding her way in the world, and in turn a sense of found family in her street urchin friends with thick drama. On the other, we see a glossy hard-rock revenge story with a smart fashion sense and dry wit. Both sides blend well enough, but not without a loose wobble. It’s as disjointed as it is, partly due in fact we couldn’t go too hard on either. It’s still a Disney film, after all, one that’s earned its PG-13 and wears it well. But had they leaned harder on the glam, that would’ve made a larger difference on securing its maturity, even its levelness.

Stone and Thompson are unfazed, however. Their respective roles deliver ample sass, and myriad spine shivers. In the dog-bites-dog game they’re playing, they invoke enough suspense and shrewdness to likely leave most guessing. It’s through them I remained glued to my seat during the third act. As extensive as this tale plays out (at 134 minutes, patience will run a little thing near the end), they manage to land on their feet to bring the curtain down. If not completely award-worthy, Miss Stone is, for lack of a better term, flawless. It makes sense Close is attached as an exec producer, she’ll still be the OG, of course, she’d do more than giving a few little pointers.

Even with the desire to be many things at once (witty and wicked will do fine), Cruella still pulls off something different for Disney’s live-action strategy moving ahead. And different can be great, when done correctly. And in melting away the cartoonish traits of such a notable screen baddie to make them a tad more human in real life, doing things differently proves worth the challenge it creates on its own volition. Despite a script delivering much more than it can initially promise, Gillespie and his cast make a fair big-screen venture out of what would otherwise be fine at-home viewing. Preferably without a paywall, and with more real dalmatians. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

Cruella opens in theaters Friday, with simultaneous at home on Disney+ with a Premier Access add-on of $30; rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements; 134 minutes.