Disney’s dark-edged ‘Cruella’ crushes it with a lavishly mounted, devilishly snarky origin story that is definitely not suitable for kids

Dress ups: Emma Stone goes dark in Disney’s ‘Cruella’

CRUELLA **** (134 minutes) PG
In an absolutely delicious, visually sumptuous super-sized treat from Disney Emmas Stone and Thompson spend almost all of their screen time out-hamming each other as they fill out the origin story of the 101 Dalmatians villainess, Disney’s sexiest bad girl (not counting the Evil Queen from Snow White, of course.)

Set in the 1970s to a killer pop soundtrack, the pair play high-end fashionistas in a distinctly adult-oriented lark with a decidedly dark edge and lots of punk-tinted Goth costuming, magnificent sets, splashy camerawork – you’ll adore the lovely long shots – and playful period detail, with special attention paid to men’s hairstyles.

We meet Cruella as a baby called Estella, born with neatly divided black & white hair and a rebellious attitude, an asset greatly enhanced by her defiant push-back to school bullying.

Lovingly raised by her single mum (Emily Beecham), a tragedy sees her fall into the company of a couple of artful thieves with whom she shares digs and petty criminal activity.

Her love of fashion leads her into the orbit of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a ruthless doyen of design who prompts Estella to develop a split personality, Jekyll & Hyde style, which sees the emergence of her alter ego, Cruella.

With Stone and Thompson chewing every piece of available scenery, the film smoothly develops into a revenge-fuelled tale of competing egos, all dutifully directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya; The Finest Hours) who pushes the pedal on visual and emotional extravagance.

As the persona of Cruella becomes more and more dominant, it’s up to her loyal sidekicks Jasper (Joel Fry, Game of Thornes) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, so good in Richard Jewell) to do the all-important job of keeping Estella front of mind.

They keep the behavioural change well-centred; the excesses Cruella displays as her war with the Baroness heats up are countered by reminders of how much they miss the kinder, sweeter Estella.

Cleverly, the nasty behaviour exhibited by our monochromatic anti-heroine is always framed by a morally justified circumstance that is always clear. Thus, Cruella’s demeanor is presented more as a survival mechanism against an unfair world rather than as an expression of real evil. That’s a tough narrative trick to pull off, yet Gillespie blends it in without any awkwardness.

The necessarily over-the-top turns from the Emmas are a delight to behold, with Thompson being especially effective at snarling without messing up the layers of age-defying face make-up.

Predictably, much mention has been made of her performance being similar to Meryl Streep’s turn in The Devil Wears Prada. In all fairness it should be flagged that the tone of Streep’s performance owes a lot to Glenn Close’s portrayal of Cruella in the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians and its 2000 sequel 102 Dalmatians.

Of course, there’s also the tone-setting of Disney’s original 1961 animated feature, which was based on the 1956 novel by Dorothy Gladys Smith (who surely deserves more mention and credit at this point). Chances are, Thompson probably drew less on Streep and much more on Close who, incidentally, has a long association with Cruella and is credited as one of its producers.

To be honest, the film could have dialled up the comedy a bit more, with most of the humour coming from sight gags and some intricately engineered moments of visual bravado.

Though Thompson does deploy her sharp tongue here and there, Cruella could have done with a lot of verbal sniping in the tradition of, say, Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and Phyllis Diller. Hmm. Perhaps that school of put-down comedy has been deemed too problematic in these enlightened times, regardless of how hilarious it still is.

(For examples, check out Bette Midler in fine form at the Oscars podium here and here, tearing into award ceremonies three decades before Ricky Gervais, and here in a snarky snippet from the 1988 film Big Business. Whatever happened to this kind of sass?)

The film has received a PG rating in Australia, which is hopefully enough to issue caution that the film is not really designed for young children or tweens.

Cruella is driven by some pretty dark themes and story turns, all handled with great storytelling pizazz and punch. As such, it’s a film more suited to the date-night demographic upwards than for the family.

And it’s a sure bet that most females looking for a fun movie with a cleverly disguised girl-power message will find Cruella a She-Devilish delight.

Footnote:As with Mulan last year, Cruella is being released in cinemas as well as on Disney+, where subscribers will have to pay an additional charge to see it. As with Warners, Disney is dipping its toe into the idea of simultaneously releasing big films on both platforms, a brave, if questionable concept designed to help make up for the takings denied by the shutdown of cinemas precipitated by the Coronavirus.

The availability of that choice is perfectly good and fine and proper, though to be fair, directors who made their movies for the big screen aren’t all that happy about people watching their $200 million tentpole films for the first time on an 11-inch computer screen. It’s certainly not the venue the creators of Cruella had in mind, something that will be gloriously obvious to anyone who has the wisdom of enjoying the film in the format for which it was intended.