An interesting thought occurred to me as I sat down to watch Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella.”

I am not a studied acolyte of the works of Dodie Smith. Or of Bill Peet’s animated classic, let alone Glenn Close’s two turns as the nefarious Cruella de Vil. So, it would seem natural that my indoctrination to this classic debutante would have to occur in Hollywood’s oft-dipped character origin story.

Craig Gillespie and Emma Stone make a formidable creative team as they weave a story from Cruella’s not-so-humble beginnings and her rise to the top of the fashion world.

Though the film starts in the late 1950s with Estella de Vil as a child, pranking her way through school, the film primarily is set in the fashionable West End of London in the swinging 1970s. Dana Fox (“What Happens in Vegas”) and Tony McNamara’s (“The Favourite”) script (based on a story by Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), Kelly Marcel (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “Venom”) and, Steve Zissis) serves up striking characters and madcap hijinks in an effort to see Cruella come into her own . . . hair.

Emma Stone, as the adolescent Cruella, has had to navigate rough waters. She is fueled by a trauma that she did wrong and is supported by two loveable rapscallions, brothers Jasper (Joel Fry) and a delicious Paul Walter Hauser as Horace.

An engaging warmth develops between the trio that Gillespie taps into, even as Cruella ‘advances’ in her career, owing much to the imbibed Gerald (Jamie Dementriou). The steps, or missteps, that Cruella takes are genuine and genuinely funny. There’s a sharp sarcasm and wit about their banter.

“Cruella” skirts the line of being a heist type film, an homage to the era in which the film is set, and is a robust character study in which a simple word translates into nefarious plans. For Emma Thompson’s Baroness, the sharp clip here or the “don’t say ‘thank you’” comment denotes that she has no time for pedantic antics or people. And yet, she’s surrounded by exactly that, most notably Andrew Leung’s Jeffrey and Kayvan Novak’s Roger.

That is until Estella comes into the Baroness’ life – “Finally, someone who can sing the Baroness’ tune!” (No, that’s not a quote from the movie; that’s the author shouting that something went right.)  Yes, the typical “growing into the role” type story thread gives us a chance to see Stone bring the character to life.

In a way, we get to see what makes both the baroness and Cruella tick – for Thompson, she’s a static character, acting with her eyes, facial tics, and body language; for Stone, a smirk and a look of familiarity, or devilishness make her marks. Both characters are allowed to show their smarts. The lush score from Nicholas Britell and pop music from the 1970s only adds more layers of welcome complexity to the characters.

However, this is where the film starts to run amok just a tad. The 134-minute run time was a bit too generous. I should note that, visually, the film, shot in a grey pallor, is accented with pops of color; it doesn’t waste the run time. But, the devil is literally in the details – there’s too much room for characters to develop in “Cruella.” Much like a ping-pong match, the lobs and returns just got to be too much.

Despite my reservations, there’s the aforementioned ‘warmth’ in Cruella’s character. The story uses that foundation with which to earn our empathy. Hauser channeled his inner Bob Hoskins in his cockney accent, the fact that he studied the former’s performance in “Hook” as a ground for this character. However, the foundation is mainly supported in Mark Stong’s understated performance and John McCrea’s Artie. To say more would be to give away some of the best parts of the film.

“Cruella,” opening in theatres and on Disney Plus with Premier Access today, has a strong performance from crucial characters matched with Gillespie’s crisp direction. The characters and their razor claws on the ready-to-attack at the slightest turn or crooked lip are exceptionally well-defined.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t as crisp or sharp. But it is very, very witty. And for that reason, I am Recommending “Cruella.”

 

 

  • Movie Review: Cruella
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