By: Kayla Caldwell
CRUELLA feels like what would happen if you made a movie about the Met Gala, Camp: Notes on Fashion edition… except in London. It’s a fever dream of couture, camp, and crazy-cute dogs. Seriously, Wink may be the best thing to ever happen to me, behind my actual rescue dog, Daisy. CRUELLA is Annie meets The Devil Wears Prada with Ocean’s 8 thrown in.
We begin on a tiny child with hair that is exactly half-black and half-white. Yes, even as a baby, Cruella had that iconic ‘do. Her real name is Estella (played as a 12 year old by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), and the relationship between her and her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham) is so healthy and wonderful that it almost made me cry.
Cruella, as it turns out, was a rebuke from her mother, when the little girl was being rude. “That’s cruel. Your name’s Estella, not Cruella,” her mother says. Cruella ends up becoming the name for Estella’s dark thoughts, which she banishes by saying, “Thank you for coming, but you may go now.” It is actually a legitimate tactic for acknowledging and shutting down intrusive thoughts, and seeing characters using a therapy method onscreen, like it was completely normal, made my mentally ill heart explode with joy.
As Estella grows, she becomes more brilliant and creative, turning her boring school jacket into a work of art in its own right. However, as is often the case, her elementary school isn't exactly looking to cultivate creativity, so much as kids who keep quiet and do what they are told. It also doesn’t help that Estella’s black and white hair - which is wildly stylish now - leads the kids to criticize her as well. She’s a punk rock Punky Brewster meets Fashion Week, and I am obsessed.
Estella’s mother is so continuously supportive, encouraging her creative streak rather than just blindly agreeing with the school staff and telling her to fall in line. It’s a beautiful thing… but, this is a Disney movie, after all, so the mother wasn’t meant to last. I won’t tell you what happens to her, although it is a quite shocking addition to the CRUELLA canon.
Once she’s alone, we enter into the Annie territory, with Estella bonding with two fellow London orphans, young Horace (Joseph MacDonald) and Jasper (Ziggy Gardner). Estella’s beloved dog Buddy leads the way to the children’s hideaway home, and they become an Aladdin, of sorts, if Aladdin were three 12-year-olds and two very well-trained dogs robbing the streets of London rather than Agrabah. I realize this is a spinoff from a movie literally called 101 Dalmatians, but it is still delightful that everyone has their own sidekick-dog, like they’re all fabulous witches with their familiars.
At times, Wink pretends to be a giant rodent, acts as bait, and even manages to bail people out of jail. Half of their plans - if not all of them - rely on Wink being the unbelievable gift that she is. The best part? They actually acknowledge how crazy we dog lovers are for our pets. I must tell Daisy I love her at least 100 times a day. Horace (as adult: Paul Walter Hauser) is the same way. When he yells, “YOU’RE GETTING KISSED RIGHT ON THE MOUTH I DON’T CARE WHERE IT’S BEEN,” it is funny, yes, but also relatable as heck. Pretty much everything out of Hauser’s mouth is hilarious and dry, like any great British humor.
The Horace and Jasper (as adult: Joel Fry) in this movie are so much more likable than in previous iterations. They aren’t just goons. They’re lifelong friends who get taken advantage of when Estella gets too method with her alter ego, Cruella. Estella wants to make her evil boss pay, but doesn’t realize that in doing so, she’s actually hurting the ones she loves most. And when it comes down to it, that’s the real villain, isn’t it? In life, our big villains aren’t always Joker-esque monsters with costumes and CGI-ed weapons. Sometimes they’re just a sad woman with a sharp tongue and a wardrobe that’s more expensive than yours.
People might be disappointed that Stone’s CRUELLA isn’t more evil, but she’s honestly the perfect picture of madness. I’m sure my fellow creatives can relate to the feeling that if their boss devalues or claims credit for their work one more time, then they’re just one more bad thing away from their own super-villain meltdown. Plus, did anyone really want to see Emma Stone skinning puppies? Because I certainly did not.
The music in CRUELLA is on point, and Stone’s voiceover is perfection. Actually, everything about Stone in this role is perfection - whether she’s the ingénue, creating designer looks for her ungrateful boss, or the mysterious fashion revolutionary. At one point, in a move reminiscent of My Favorite Murder’s “This is terrible. Keep going,” an adult Estella (Stone) teases, “Don’t worry, we’re just getting started. There’s lots more bad things coming, I promise.”
And while that is certainly true, one good thing that happens is Estella meets Artie (John McCrea), who is as much a work of art as his playful intro suggests. I loved every single interaction between Artie and Estella, and I’m sure you will, too. There’s a shocking amount of pure joy in this movie, for all of the dark backstory. I expect to see Artie’s line, “I like to say that normal is the cruelest insult of them all,” on so much merchandise.
Emma Thompson as The Baroness is big Miranda Priestly vibes, down to her sidekick being a charming, fashionable bald man (Mark Strong). She’s gorgeous and vicious, which The Baroness says is her “favorite combination.” It’s also why I immediately swipe left on anyone who is too pretty. Thompson’s delivery makes The Baroness both stunning and terrifying, a worthy adversary to Estella’s spiral into the madness and brilliance of Cruella.
Anyone who has seen the trailer knows how breathtaking the fashion in this movie is. However, one particular reveal is so The Silence of the Lambs, that I’m almost surprised it occurred in a Disney film. Thousands of bloggers will likely try to recreate Cruella’s “The future” makeup look, with good reason, and I will have dreams for years to come about that Marie Antoinette meets garbage man dress. Also, yes, the fire reveal may have been in the trailer, but it’s still a draw-dropping entrance on screen.
Cruella’s plans are clever, devious and big, because, as her dear friend Anita Darling (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) points out, she has a “bit of an extreme side.” In this moment, I could hear J.D. from Heathers saying, “The extreme always seems to make an impression,” and that is exactly Cruella’s logic. She’s not just getting back at the Baroness (though she does say that “revenge” should be added as one of the stages of grief); she’s making a statement against an unfair, toxic system, and the woman helping to keep it in power.
In CRUELLA, the best verbal sparring takes place at galas, and date night is “a night of fabulousness, mayhem, and possible death.” The dialogue is as whip-smart as its actresses, and the film homages are enough to make a movie buff weep; including the most fun Spartacus tribute since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
CRUELLA is worth every penny of Disney Plus’s $29.99, which is something I really didn’t expect to write. To be honest, even if the movie had been terrible, I probably would’ve said it was worth it for the footage of Wink alone. Oh, and be sure to watch through the initial credits, because there’s an adorable homage to the original 101 Dalmatians featuring Howell-Baptiste and Kayvan Novak (as Roger).
CRUELLA is streaming now on Disney Plus.