How do you humanize a woman who likes to skin innocent puppies for the sake of her own fur obssession? That's the immense hurdle Disney had to overcome when it green-lit Cruella, an origin movie about the fashion-crazy villain of 101 Dalmatians. The project, which stars Oscar-winner Emma Stone (La La Land) in the title role, is just two days away from release, and critics are finally allowed to share their thoughts on it.
Fortunately, Cruella is not the mess that some viewers may have expected. In fact, Brian Truitt of USA Today calls it "the coolest Disney film in forever."
Variety's Peter Debruge posits that director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) "proves ingeniously creative in its reimagining of the underlying IP." The critic later adds: "Cruella stands on its own, to the extent that Disney could have changed the title character’s name, and the resulting movie would still have been a slyly empowering underdog story — especially for those who see themselves in the put-upon assistant position of The Devil Wears Prada."
The mention of David Frankel's iconic depiction of the cutthroat world of fashion design is appropriate. Set against the backdrop of 1970s London, the film tracks Ms. de Vil's journey from creative criminal grifter to creative criminal icon. Lovia Gyarke of The Hollywood Reporter praises Stone's performance, writing that the actress expertly vacillates "between wide-eyed Estella [Cruella's birth name] and diabolical Cruella without ever losing the thread — a deep desire to be seen — that connects them."
When her talent is discovered by the callous Baroness (Emma Thompson apparently channels Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestley), Cruella finds herself catapulted into the major leagues. Always looking out for No. 1, the ambitious woman kicks off a veritable fashion arms race, sabotaging and upstaging her new mentor/employer at every turn with some help from her usual accomplices, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
"There are times when Cruella’s young womanhood is a mixture of Sleeping Beauty and Heath Ledger’s Joker," writes The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw in a review that gives a near-perfect score of 4 out of 5 stars. "The politics of Cruella de Vil are more generational than sexual. She wants to be like her role-model heroine and then wipe her out. It’s not the dog’s skin Cruella wants to rip off and wear, it’s the Baroness’s. She wants to inhabit and destroy."
Since much of the story hangs on hip clothing, Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt gives credit to costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Mad: Fury Road), whose work "blossom[s] into full fantasy as the story moves into the '70s: a Vivienne Westwood fever dream of punk-rock couture, swathed in yards of trash-bag latex and chiffon." Greenblatt describes the licensed soundtrack of needle drops as "a gold-plated celebration of the era; you can almost hear the Disney dollars ding as the canonized hits of Blondie and the Stooges and the Rolling Stones pour through the speakers."
Ben Travis, writing for Empire Magazine, also compliments the movie's reverence for the time period, which serves as a perfect vehicle for send-ups to the master of crime himself: Martin Scorsese. "The Scorsesean riffs he brought to I, Tonya continue here, from a stacked soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s greats (The Clash, Blondie, The Stooges), to a stunning extended tracking shot through the halls of Liberty. What could have been a mere IP cash-in instead becomes an unexpectedly cinematic crime-and-couture romp, delivered with the sort of style, snarl and eccentricity that Cruella herself would likely applaud. She makes being bad look very good."
IGN's Kristy Puchko concludes that Cruella "makes some big, wild swings that are simply spectacular. Along with the glorious gonzo fashion, this cacophonic film offers complicated female characters with unapologetic attitude, grand ambition, and a truly bonkers backstory that's better left unspoiled ... with grimy whimsy, crackling leading ladies, imaginative twists, and plenty of eye-popping spectacle, Cruella is a hell of a good time."
Cruella struts down the runway and into theaters this Friday, May 28. If you'd rather watch it from the comfort of your own home, you'll also be able to purchase the movie for the Disney+ Premier Access fee of $29.99 (same as Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon, and the upcoming Black Widow).