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"Cruella" 4K Review

 Some background to explain where I'm coming from with this review: I don't think I've ever seen the original 1961 animated version of 101 Dalmatians; I've never seen the 1996 Glenn Close live-action remake and its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmatians; I have diligently avoided the tsunami of creatively-bankrupt and unnecessary live-action remake cash grabs Disney has been cranking out in the past years (other than the first Malificent, which was OK); and I've been smitten with Emma Stone for pretty much her entire career all the way back to her debut in Superbad. So I had no attachment to the source material, but when Disney dropped this first look at Stone's take in August 2019...


...I was so on board for this movie. It looked bonkers and I knew Stone could kill it. 

Well, the movie's here - surprisingly undelayed by Hot Fad Plague 2020-21 (it was always slated to open this weekend) - available to see in theaters or via the total ripoff Disney+ Premiere Access (where you pay $30 on top of your D+ subscription for access to a movie which will be on sale for $10 to OWN in a few months and streaming in 4K on D+ a few months after that) - and the critical reaction has been mixed, ranging from "Why would they make an origin movie about a villainous character whose whole thing is wanting to murder puppies?" to "Why did they make a movie about a notorious puppy murderer and not have her murder puppies?" There were also the usual partisan factions projecting their agendas on the movie and using it as a punching bag for this or that failing to serve their wants. (See: The idiots who complained about 1917 and Dunkirk only having white men in the cast.)

While people with investment in the franchise or those needing biases assuaged may have been let down, I found Cruella to be a nicely done dramedy fantasia (no pun) powered by a pair of ace performances by Stone and Emma Thompson and what should be Oscar-winning costumes by Jenny Beavan. 

It opens with young Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a precocious girl with half-black half-white hair, being nicknamed Cruella by her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), a poor laundry woman who taught her to sew. Bullied by her classmates at the posh school she must've had a scholarship to, she constantly got into trouble when retaliating, eventually being expelled. Catherine decides small town living isn't suitable for Estella and decides to move them to London, but on the way she makes a stop at Hellman Hall to see someone.

A big gala party is going on and Estella sneaks in and has her young mind blown at all the beautiful fashions and opulence. She gets discovered and chased by a trio of Dalmatians outside. While hiding,  she sees her mother speaking to someone when the dogs race past and one dropkicks Catherine off the cliff to her death. (It's not a Disney movie unless a mother gets whacked in the first five minutes!) Estella makes her escape, but loses the necklace her mother had given her. 

Arriving in London, she meets up with a pair of Artful Dodgers, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner as a child, then Joel Fry as an adult) and Horace (Joseph MacDonald and Paul Walter Hauser), who take her on as one of theri gang of grifters, taking her  to the dilapidated townhouse they're squatting in. She dyes her distinctive hair and for the next decade they run scams and grifts with Estella developing her fashion design chops making disguises for them. 

Knowing she's capable of more, Jasper contrives a job for her at Liberty, an ultra posh department store which features the best designers wares. Unfortunately, she gets stuck doing janitorial work until one night she gets blackout drunk and wakes up in the store window after radically revamping the display. While in the process of being fired and tossed from the premises, her handiwork is appreciated by superstar fashion designer the Baroness (Thompson, playing like Meryl Streep's The Devil Wears Prada character, but meaner) who immediately hires her.

While working her way up in the Baronness's confidence with her slick designs, Estella spots Baroness wearing her mother's necklace then realizes that the latter was responsible for calling the dogs to kill her mother. She then starts devising elaborate plans to steal back the necklace and dethrone Baroness as the top fashion figure by shaking up mid-1970s London with her Vivienne Westwood-esque punk-glam-trash fashions as her alter ego Cruella. With the help of a childhood friend who works the fashion beat at a tabloid, she makes big waves, but her mania begins to test her friendship with her grifter family. 

Cruella succeeds by walking a tricky tonal tightrope - it's dark, but not too dark; it can be broadly slapstick, but not cartoonish - and it does so by committing to its ethos wholeheartedly without too much obvious trimming for current identity politics tastes. What's really remarkable is that not once does the script play the Feminism card where the leads whine about how tough it is to make it in a man's world or some Evil White Male is the actual villain. This is Grrrl Powah world where most of the men are merely adjuncts, not from some misandrist "Men BAD!" agenda, but it's not about them; it's about Cruella versus the Baroness. 

Underscoring things is a wildly anachronistic soundtrack packed with 33 songs(!) ranging from inspired to audacious (the Baroness's introduced with The Doors' "Five To One") to head-scratching (ELO's "Living Thing" backing a wild slapstick sequence?) to eye-rollingly obvious, yet perfect; specifically using the hoary Rolling Stones anthem "Sympathy For The Devil" as a closer. (Because De Vil, GET IT?) The film's music budget is already a meme. 

But what holds things together are the leads. Stone has proven adept at everything from comedy to period piece drama (three Oscar and five Golden Globe nominations with one win each for La La Land) and while her usual bright-eyed charm is subsumed here, she's still marvelously nuanced portraying Estella/Cruella's ambition, genius, grievance, and thirst for vengeance. Similarly, Thompson avoids making her Baroness a cartoon despite being a one-note creation. 

Another mention must be made of Beavan's costumes. According to a promo video I saw, she had to create 47 looks for Cruella and there have to be be at least half again as many for the Baroness, treading the line between near-parody and genuinely fashionable. 

The other reviews I've noticed seem hung up on the retconning of Cruella into a not-so-dog-murdery person or a general "Did we really need this?" kevetching over Disney's continuing creative bankruptcy, but as I noted above, despite - or perhaps because of - my almost complete lack of knowledge of the source material, I really enjoyed Cruella for what it was: A funky punky fashion frivolity with ace performances and killer duds. 

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Disney+ when it's part of the regular subscription.


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