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'Cruella' Review: What's a villain, anyway?

At first you think Cruella is the devil, but after time has worn away the shock...

Emma Stone as Cruella.
(Image: Β© Disney)

Our Verdict

Disney's Cruella is an unexpected joy, albeit an overlong one.

For

  • πŸ‘  The costumes β€” gorgeous.
  • πŸ‘  The set pieces β€” stunning.
  • πŸ‘  Both Emmas β€” perfect.
  • πŸ‘  The soundtrack β€” bangin'.
  • πŸ‘  The plot β€” surprisingly compelling!
  • πŸ‘  Good dogs.

Against

  • πŸ‘  We're no longer giving points for implicitly gay characters in 2021.
  • πŸ‘  She's a pretty girl, but she's too long.

Cruella feels like an impossible story on paper. Sure, you can tell tales of interesting villains. But this is Disney. For better or worse, that means that if someone is the protagonist of the film, they're going to be the good guys in the context of the narrative. You're going to root for them, darnit! But how do you make a world full of people who grew up knowing Cruella De Vil as the most deplorable of all Disney villains cheer for her success? The answer there is pretty simple β€” and a bit of a spoiler β€” but rest assured, dear reader: this film manages to retcon the Cruella storyline in a way that will have you on her side.

While a good part of that success is due to the story, Emma Stone's performance can't be understated. She understood the assignment in every scene, whether that be during one of her more nefarious moments, or when the feelings need to shine through. With Emma Thompson playing her foil as the wicked Baroness, there was no way you don't feel for Cruella at least a tiny bit. 

The film's fashion element coupled with a cruel, unfeeling boss made it easy for early comparisons to call out The Devil Wears Prada inspiration, but there's really none of that in the DNA of Cruella. The costumes are to die for, but in their own unique, completely out of the box way. Cruella wants to take the fashion world by storm, and she does so with over 40 costume changes throughout the film. Jenny Beavan β€” Cruella's costume designer β€”  brought this film to life with some absolutely stunning pieces. It's not just the dresses that wow, either. There are several "casual" costumes that will serve as wardrobe inspiration to countless fellow weirdos. 

Combine the performances and the costumes with the unique set pieces and a soundtrack that bangs and you've got yourself a Disney film that really does stand out from the rest. Cruella never feels weird for the sake of being weird. Instead, the film drives forward with the same rebel intent of its protagonist. It's going to do what it wants to do, damn those who say these live-action remakes are a snore. (A lot of them are.) It's got a punk rock vibe to it (both in narrative and in soundtrack), and it's happy to march to the beat of its own drum.

You know what's not punk rock? Patting yourself on the back (again) for having your "first" out character (again) and never acknowledging said character's sexuality. Artie (John McCrea) is a dream as Cruella's fashionista partner in crime. John McCrea himself is gay, so kudos on getting your casting right! But Disney's insistence on playing both sides of the fence has been tired for years. It wants to reach out to the new generation, but it doesn't want to ostracize investors. What it's left with is a lukewarm portrayal that leaves both parties unhappy. You can say "gay," Disney! It's ok. It's not a swear! 

From a technical perspective, Cruella's biggest problem is that it's just too long. There's a whole half hour of this film that could be cut out while still telling the same story. Most scenes being quite pretty to look at helps with the passage of time. Even still, that's not enough to stop some of the extra weight from being a bit of a drag.

Like Maleficent before it, Cruella ends up being an interesting enough retelling that it leaves you wanting more of the story. By the time the final credits roll and Cruella's stinger scene completes, you actually want the entirety of 101 Dalmatians to be rebuilt in this new world. You're left wondering how this version of the villain fits in with the stories of Roger (Kayvan Novak) and Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) in the context of their futures. Or, perhaps just as interesting, is she the villain at all at that point? Make no mistake, this version of Cruella will still wipe out anyone who stands in her way. But the gap between her motivations in 101 Dalmatians and Cruella is approximately the size of the Grand Canyon.

Want to chat spoilers? Read more in Disney's Cruella ending explained: Is this new character still a villain?