Review: Disney’s ‘Cruella’ is a riot says John Taggart

Disney Cruella
Image: Disney

Cruella is without doubt Disney’s best live-action remake/prequel/revisionist reboot/whatever since Cinderella, possibly since 1996’s 101 Dalmatians. Remakes tend to be so slavishly frame-for-frame copies that they’re pointless (The Lion King, Aladdin) and/or underwhelming (Mulan, Beauty & the Beast).

Meanwhile, revisionist retellings fail because canon-established ‘goodies’ (Stefan in Maleficent, even the Wizard in Wicked) are now the villains, retconning the original stories beyond recognition.

Cruella, in contrast, is at once both fresh and recognisable. When child Estella (later Cruella, bear with me) suffers the loss of her mother, she turns to thieving with new lovable Dickensian pals Horace and Jasper.

Cruella re-born

Her criminal life in an abandoned London loft is utter boho chic; part starving artist, part undiscovered genius as she cleans toilets by day and designs outfits by night.

When she crosses paths with famous designer ‘The Baroness’ (Emma Thompson) – we’re only 20 minutes in here – the ridiculous twists of her life see her alter-ego Cruella re-born. For the rest of the movie she struggles to balance kind Estella with vengeful fashion icon Cruella.

It’s no spoiler to say which she’s chosen by the end of the movie. That sets her up perfectly to become the iconic, unhinged caricature we know and love.

And that’s it. That’s the whole plot.

More style than substance

Cruella is definitely more style than substance – and that is not a criticism. So many revisionist movies bend over backwards to explain away the protagonist’s established villainy. It’s all trauma and sympathy.

In Cruella, while Estella is traumatised, there is FUN in this movie. The glamorous costumes alone are incredible, an endless parade of style.

Both the explosion of elegant ‘60s sophistication and the militant experimentalism of the incoming ‘70s punk fashions are expertly, beautifully recreated.

You could watch this film on mute just for the visuals alone. (I don’t recommend it, though – the retro soundtrack is too perfect, and I may have spent my weekend searching for a vinyl copy of it).

Emma Thompson creates an original villain in Cruella

Another strength of Cruella is the creation of a completely original Disney villain in Emma Thompson’s Baroness rather than villainising characters we know. When I say original though, I mean only as a new character in the franchise.

She’s a carbon archetype – cold, haughty, imperious evil.

Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada and Lady Tremaine in one.

Bree Van de Kamp watching Rex die or driving away leaving little gay Andrew on the roadside.

She’s Joan Collins in everything.

In short, she’s fantastic. (However, even I draw the line at a Baroness origin prequel).

Cruella the metaphor

And Cruella herself? Emma Stone is a tour-de-force, and her task is tough. She blends the high camp of the original, all cheekbones and temper and Betty Lou Gerson’s impeccable voice work with the frenetic mania of Glenn Close.

Yet the young Cruella has her own flair too. All of these references aren’t incidental; Cruella knows exactly what it’s doing, appealing to a love of the familiar in call-backs of Every Trope Ever™, while also packaging them up as a genuinely new take.

Cruella the character is a metaphor for the movie itself. Stylised-within an-inch-of-her-life, over-the-top era glamour and utterly sincere all in one.

She lives in an aesthetic fantasy of an idealised past. And for good measure, Roger and Anita, Pongo and Perdita, Horace and Jasper all pop up now and again to tie our nostalgic heart-strings to this past.

By blending era-nostalgia with a Bold-and-the-Beautiful take, Disney has finally hit on the right recipe to appeal to both adults and kids – and created a whole new movie world.

Who doesn’t want to embrace their inner camp, their dark glamour, laughing maniacally into the night as they’re driven away from a ball in a garbage truck, a rubbish-bag train to rival Princess Di’s wedding dress trailing behind them? (Trust me, it’s FAR better on screen than it sounds).

Estella finally embracing Cruella is every rural child gay’s fantasy. She casts off the shackles of mediocrity and blank niceness and embraces the spiritedness and complexity of battling one’s inner self.

For girls everywhere too, isn’t that a far more empowering message than the ‘misunderstood and misrepresented’ trauma of Maleficent or Elphaba? a Remember what Uncle Sondheim taught us. ‘Nice’ is different than good.

A camp-as-tits Melodramatic soap opera

But critically exploring ‘representation’ or the portrayal of Cruella’s mental health completely misses the tone of this film.

It is – if you can’t tell – camp-as-tits. Melodramatic soap opera twists are played one minute as emotional, bitter monologues.  Then, wrapped up in swathes of haute couture and pithy one-liners the next.

Yes, Cruella throws the word ‘psycho’ around with abandon and it’s implied that this is an inherited trait. She’s also born with Sia hair, goes from innocent child to petty thief to toilet cleaning at her favourite department store to genius designer to heiress in one fell swoop.

Not to mention 2 separate cliff-drops.

Let’s not take this too seriously, hey?


Watch at home or on the big screen

In our Covid world, Cruella is also the first Disney movie in Australia to be given a simultaneous Disney+ and theatrical release. It’s a bold economic model, especially as in Australia at least, cinemas have been re-opened for a while. But it may pay off.

Having paid the exorbitant ‘premier access’ fee to watch it in my own bed (in retrospect, perhaps having my 2 doggies with me for the screening was a mistake), I’ll now pay again to see it at the cinema.

I want to get the big-screen experience of this film because it’s nothing but style and is so ridiculously theatrical. The convoluted plot, the thin motivations, the Big Twist you’ll smell coming a mile off like a Dalmatian tugging on its lead?

It’s all such nonsense. But the fabulously tragic, tragically fabulous glamour is a young gay boy’s fever dream from start to finish.

Cruella, You Stay.

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