The character of Cruella de Vil has produced several iconic incarnations. From the pages of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the fur-obsessed and cigarette-wielding villainess has fostered a handful of celebrated cinematic portrayals. Disney’s latest endeavour, the origin story Cruella, therefore had an enormous challenge. Not only having to capture one of the most visually striking villains in the Disney catalogue, its star (Academy Award winner Emma Stone) must have undoubtedly felt a looming sense of responsibility following Glenn Close’s incendiary portrayal of the Cruella in the 1996 live-action adaptation.
Close – who incidentally serves as executive producer in 2021’s Cruella – expertly blended the high-fashion, smokescreen glamour of the 1961 animation with the unsettling frenzy of her bunny-boiling classic, Fatal Attraction. And on a personal level, having grown up with a pet dalmatian in the Suffolk home which originally inspired Cruella de Vil’s evil lair, aptly named ‘Hell Hall’, I admit to having been initially somewhat sceptical of the film’s premise. However, the titular role is inhabited perfectly by Emma Stone, who provides the most textured and compelling version of the character to date. No longer a supporting part, but thrust centre-stage, which, in true Cruella fashion, is clearly where she belongs.
Set against the backdrop of the emerging punk scene of 1970s London, Cruella is a wickedly entertaining and wholly original prequel that follows the young Estella as she negotiates city life and transcends her humble beginnings to become elusive fashion mogul and media toy, Cruella. With several nods to both Smith’s novel and the 1961 animation, the film is led by the captivating lead performances from Stone and her on-screen mentor-turned-adversary, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). Thompson is a tour de force as the stony establishment figure, delivering a delightfully narcissistic and often funny performance with enough razor-sharp wit to rival Miranda Priestly’s harshest put-downs. Like Peter Bradshaw writes for The Guardian, it’s a ‘Cruella-de-Vil-wears-Prada’ premise that packs quite a punch.
In spite of mixed reviews, Cruella is outrageous and entertaining in equal measure – with enough familiar territory to make it a welcome addition to the 101 Dalmatians repertoire, but is sufficiently original to instantly feel fresh. The production is a stylish, vampy, monochromatic feast, boasting a soundtrack full of hits and a wardrobe of ostentatious costumes. The narrative is also surprisingly slick – but stay for the end-of-credits scene for a short yet warming segue into the original 101 Dalmatians story.
Overall, Cruella manages to not fall flat – a difficult feat given that it does divert so greatly from its original source material. But that is why the premise of Cruella works. It’s not a watered-down ‘reimagining’ of a classic (think 2019 Aladdin) or a vapid spinoff which only occasionally remembers to contrive some connection to the original (enter 2014 Maleficent). There is something special at the heart of Cruella; perhaps given that it unpacks by far the most interesting character of 101 Dalmatians, and actually gives Anita more to do than simply sip tea in her domestic city idyll.
Stone and Thompson – deliciously scratching at each other’s throats – propel the story forwards, and refreshingly compete not for the attention of a secondary male figure, but for one’s own survival in a cut-throat industry. Cruella is a spectacular treat for the long-awaited return to cinemas, and quite rightly develops its titular character from the vacuous, operatic pantomime villain of the 1961 animation into a gritty and career-driven feminist figure.
Illustration: Verity Laycock