A film review by Neha Newalkar
Disney's latest origins story follows the tale of one of the most flagrantly fashionable and wickedly glamorous villains in history! This film makes effective use of a series of flashbacks which are narrated by the villainess herself, supporting a contemporary audience in getting up close and personal with the leading lady as we experience the explosive revolution of London's punk rock scene in the 1970s. It's the epitome of a front row seat as we journey through her evolution from a talented, young girl with big aspirations to a wicked and vengeful villain we have come to know and love to hate: Cruella!
Before becoming a puppy fur obsessed fashion mogul, Estella (played to perfection by the amazing Emma Stone) was an orphaned girl living with her actual partners in crime, Jasper and Horace. These three grifters seem to be content with their dysfunctional lives but Jasper also acknowledges that Estella is meant for something more. The lovable Horace, on the other hand, is probably still looking for the "angle" of the entire rags-to-riches storyline. With a little help from a mannequin makeover involving a bottle of whiskey, Estella's talent is spotted by the Baroness (Emma Thompson) who is a household name in the world of haute couture. She takes Estella under her wing, unveiling a world of fashion, fame and fancy - the perfect space for Cruella's rebellion to take root. As the story unfolds, we see two of the most evil and intriguing geniuses in a battle to destroy one another, all the while dressed to impress in what becomes a total power move... and let me tell you, it is incredible to watch, dahling!
“Let me give you some advice. If you have to talk about power, you don’t have it.” - The Baroness
It's interesting to note that the true nature of Cruella's battle was not actually between her and The Baroness but between her and, well, her. To be (evil) or not to be (evil) - rather Shakespearean! On the one hand, her mother raised her to embrace the character of Estella who was the sweet and everyday little girl... but doing so came with the cost of suppressing the wild and bold nature of Cruella. Throughout the film, the audience encounters what happens as her two sides battle one another for control, creating an interesting character arc for us to see just how the infamous puppy-skinning villainess actually came to be. And, of course, we get to enjoy the whirlwind of comedy, crime and fabulous fashion as we do!
When I was younger I watched 101 Dalmatians until I could actually hear my DVD-player sigh from exhaustion so I was absolutely ecstatic when Disney announced Cruella! This meant that I would finally have an answer to one of the biggest questions of my childhood: which Dalmatian did Cruella so dirty that she wanted to turn them into fur coats?! The film community was also buzzing with excitement in anticipation for the prequel of one of Disney's most beloved classics and, rightfully so, especially as it only took them six decades to get here. With two Oscar-winning Emma's at the helm these two leading ladies brought a genuine and mischief-filled chemistry to their characters, making Cruella an absolute treat to watch. Add that to the spark of unhinged killer instincts that begin to burn brightly within their respective characters and you have an awesome rivalry for the ages.
Although I am a fan of all of her work, I did feel as if Stone's portrayal of Cruella was more favourable than her portrayal of Estella. Forgive me, Emma Stone.... Estella was an underwhelming character which therefore created a disconnect within the overall character development and therefore the entire plot of the film. It would seem that the audience was supposed to be following Estella as the protagonist of the film, privy to her tragic childhood and shattered dreams but there was a strong sense that Estella's backstory simply did not justify her actions as Cruella. Perhaps our expectation was that an origins story showcasing someone as iniquitous as Cruella simply had showcase another side to her personality which we were able to empathise with. It worked for Maleficent, right? But if that was our expectation, the reality definitely fell short because Estella was not quite the redemption story we had hoped for.
Don't get me wrong, Stone still gave it her all, bringing Estella to life and wonderfully captured her tenacious, persistent nature. However, as the film continues and Cruella begins to take over, there is a tangible change from Stone who effortlessly moves the protagonist to occupy the characteristics of the antagonist. From that point onwards Cruella's vengeful attitude leads her to shift her focus to one overarching goal: taking down the Baroness! The shift also meant that Jasper and Horace, Estella's most loyal friends and her adopted family, were kicked to the curb. That certainly tugged at the heartstrings but not for too long because Stone's performance as the fully-embodied Cruella brought me nothing but joy. She is a larger than life type of character: fun, fast and manic and almost everything that falls from her lips is a memorable one-liner. Stone's take on Cruella, from body language to facial expressions - including the evil glint that never quite leaves her eye - was nothing short of perfection. I simply could not remain too disappointed in the uneven evolution of the character because Stone brought a great deal of believability to both roles, even if Cruella was much more thrilling and enjoyable to watch than her underwhelming counterpart.
Starring opposite Stone is another all-time film favourite: the ever-so-graceful Emma Thompson, whose spectacular performance as The Baroness was a pleasure to watch. Thompson perfectly captured her cold-hearted and cutthroat nature and it is now safe to say that Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada no longer holds the sole title of "fashion magnate with a heart of stone." The Baroness is wicked but also quite the comedian, reading (and re-reading with dramatic pauses for effect) the rave reviews about herself to anyone who will listen. And that's not even mentioning her tendency to sneer at idiocy and call people imbeciles for just trying to keep up with her diva demands! The often cartoonish take on the Baroness adds a level of whimsy to the character while continuing to maintain a strong believability factor; what more would we expect from a stage-trained screen-queen like Thompson? Unlike Cruella, who has some character development, The Baroness stays true to her vile nature throughout the film - so much so that at the risk of becoming Cruella's next coat, I might even say that The Baroness stole the spotlight for much of the movie!
“I like to say that 'normal’ is the cruelest insult of them all and at least I never get that!” - Artie
With two Oscar-winning actresses on screen there was also a third two-time Oscar winner who worked her magic behind the scenes. Costume designer, Jenny Beavan, is most definitely the other star in this film, having created a total of 80 costumes for Cruella and The Baroness. I gave up on my dreams of becoming a fashion designer long ago (my fingers get more of the needles than the fabric) but I still harbour a love for fashion and costume design which made me appreciate Beavan's work so much more. The increasingly daring looks told a story of their own, capturing not only the ongoing fashionista feud but also the era of the punk rock revolution that the film was set in. The era was characterised by the act of finding yourself through different means, with fashion being just one of them. It reminds me of our society right now and I think that was why so many people loved the style of the film too. It was fantastic to see that the costumes could reflect the characters' personalities so perfectly, with Beaven designing for a Cruella who full embraced the punk-rock theme whilst The Baroness, in complete contrast, was provided with "an old-fashioned, Dior-inspired route." It becomes obvious that the antagonists may share many attributes, but their sense of fashion simply isn't one of them! Beaven has captured their killer instincts in equally eye-catching but completely divergent ways. The Baroness dons a wardrobe consisting of a more subtle colour palette but Beaven has chosen a host of fabrics that had "a certain structure to them so we could be sculptural." As you watch the film, it becomes increasingly obvious that The Baroness only wears clothing with harsh lines. Lines which are as sharp as her razor blade tongue! As someone passionate about design, my favourite part of the film (aside from the adorable puppies) would have to be the costumes.
Cruella's costumes reflecting the rebellious theme was befitting of her undaunted-by-anything personality traits. Although Estella's black grunge outfits are very impressive, Cruella dons dresses that go up in flames and feature 40-foot trains which - in the style icon's words herself - "are a little bit mad" but striking nonetheless! Cruella's signature colours are black and white but so many of her costumes feature red, an addition that captures her fiery spirit through her wardrobe, and my favourite dress was the one she wore for the black and white ball which became a striking red masterpiece camouflaged by a white gown. Then the gown goes up in flames and brings a bright, bold colour to an otherwise monotone aesthetic, drawing exactly the type of attention that this villainess wants to this pivotal moment in the film. The red easily signifies anger, danger, passion - but more than that it reflects Cruella's mindset as it is the moment that begins her vengeful journey to bring down The Baroness. Jenny Beaven should definitely be in the running for a third Oscar - even if only for the cinched waist, lace-up boots, extra-long train heaven she created in Cruella.
The London punk rock setting instantly allowed for a style that was threaded throughout the film. It was an age of rebellion which naturally heightened Cruella's character as someone with a flair for defiance. It is now canon that she exists within an era which so often used fashion as its means of expression, an idea that was perfectly captured not only in the design of the wardrobe but also the authenticity of the dark and gritty aesthetic of the film. Overall, there is no denying that Cruella has hit the mark with a bold and brilliant backstory for one of our favourite villains. I have no doubt that this film is well on its way to becoming one of Disney's more interesting hits. As someone who grew up watching 101 Dalmatians and wondering how Cruella descended to her underworldly throne of terror, I thoroughly enjoyed the complex storyline of the film. Add that to the excellent acting, the magnificent soundtrack and the striking designs and a solid 4.5 out of 5 seems appropriate here... and the 0.5 is obviously for the puppies!
© Written by Neha Newalkar for Collab Company | Edited by Lauren Noble | 2021
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