A live-action prequel feature film following a young Cruella de Vil. (from IMDb)
When I first heard of Disney’s new live action prequel to 101 Dalmatians that would be entirely centered on the rise of its villain Cruella de Vil, I was surprised to hear that acclaimed actress Emma Stone would be taking the lead as the title character. And then, of course, that rating – Disney’s Cruella film is PG-13? Even their two dark and often violent Maleficent movies were rated PG. So why is Cruella rated PG-13?
From the start, Cruella is dark. It has a conflicting lightness and humor within it, though, driven mostly by a fantastic 60’s and 70’s pop song-soaked soundtrack. Cruella is painted as a girl named Estella who finds it hard to behave, but wants to please her mother by pursuing a better version of herself. She nicknames her mischievous side Cruella, and her mother encourages her to bury that part of her. An accident happens while she’s a child that causes her mother to die suddenly, making Estella blame herself. Now entirely orphaned, she finds a new kind of family by joining two other discarded boys on the street – a pair of thieves named Jasper and Horace (sound familiar?). They make an inseparable trio, and they quickly learn how to survive life on the streets together by stealing and pick-pocketing. This lifestyle is portrayed with a kind of mischievous whimsy, and I can understand how that alone might earn the movie a more mature rating.
Before long, a degrading toilet-scrubbing job and a bitter, drunken window display defacement (there’s another reason) lead Estella into the direct attention of the famed fashion designer, The Baroness – deliciously played with gusto by Emma Thompson. She sees much promise in Estella, and the cold fashion mogul starts to take a liking to her. However, things indeed turn complex, and it isn’t long before Estella unleashes Cruella as a new fashion icon to rival The Baroness.
Disney’s desire to make full-fledged movies based around popular villains from their animated series of decades past is a curious one. Casting Angelina Jolie as Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent proved fruitful for them, but Cruella feels like an odd choice. Honestly, it’s an enjoyable and entertaining film on its own, but it feels weird to find yourself rooting for the woman who will eventually try to wrangle over a hundred dalmatians to turn into fur coats. This Cruella seems like she’s narcissistic enough at times to be that villain… but pure evil? (At least stories like The Emperor’s New Groove show a selfish, quasi-bad guy becoming a good guy by the end.) It’s interesting, because Cruella‘s titular character kept reminding me of the Joker in the 1989 Batman film (y’know, played by Jack Nicholson). The way she extravagantly makes entrances – and even the parking lot concert scene (which reminds me of the Joker’s parade scene), just kept reminding me of Nicholson’s Joker and his love for the flamboyant and extreme. Joel Fry’s Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace are bright lights in the darkness that drenches Cruella, and they help ease the mood of the film, but Thompson and Stone are also just so fun to watch – especially when they share the screen together. Cruella’s Estella is vulnerable enough to make you like and sympathize with her, but when she gives in to the more destructive narcissism of Cruella – much like how Jasper and Horace feel, it’s tough to want to see her prevail. If anything, you want to see Estella win in the end. But to root for a bad guy, you need their foe to be much worse, and they do a good job in giving her a formidable nemesis.
Again, the cast is what makes Cruella an enjoyable venture. I feel like it’s an uncomfortable movie to watch in that we’re expected to champion the villain, but if we take a step back from that, the fun ride that director Craig Gillespie makes Cruella is what makes it a win in the end. And I really can’t say enough for Thompson’s performance in this movie; it’s pretty much worth watching just for her. Fry and Hauser also do a great job bringing Cruella’s cartoon character sidekicks to life in a way that’s endearing without the performances being too goofy or over-the-top (though Hauser’s Horace does come awfully close before the end). In the special features, Hauser admits that he aimed to channel Bob Hoskins’ (whom I know and love most from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) performance and voice from Hook, which he really nails. And, again, the way Gillespie uses the popular songs of the time period to set the mood of any given scene is pretty perfect. It really helps shape this movie.
The content for the movie, I’d say, makes for a lighter PG-13 movie, however, the tone and themes of the movie are much less fitting for the PG audience. Cruella steals, drinks, gets drunk, schemes and destroys without giving a second thought to what she’s doing. She also gleefully gives in to her darker nature and desires, which obviosuly is the polar opposite of what the Christian life encourages. The theme of her mother’s death hangs over the whole story, and we find out some surprising revelations about this mystery. There isn’t any sexual content, but Artie, a fashion enthusiast, is a pretty flamboyantly gay character – but it’s only displayed in his stereotypical behavior and not through any reference to his sexual preferences. The language is pretty mild, with a couple uses of “G-d,” a use of “h*ll,” and one use of “d*mn” heard during a song at the end (which also namedrops Jesus, but with questionable intent). The rest of the content is violence, which isn’t graphic or bloody, but can be intense at times. One sequence shows a person falling off a cliff to their death (we don’t see the impact), while another shows a character tied up in a burning room and left for dead by another character (but they are rescued). There’s other mayhem and even some slapstick violence, but overall, the themes are more mature than your usual Disney film. Cruella surely is no Disney princess.
For the most part, Cruella is a surprisingly skillfully crafted dramedy. It may be darker than what you’d expect from Disney – and it may make some uncomfortable to find themselves rooting for someone who turns out to be a pretty nasty villain – but it’s otherwise an entertaining movie that places an endearing emphasis on family (both blood and non) with memorable performances, incredible costume design, and an energetic soundtrack.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 6/29/21)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features Review
Cruella is currently still in theaters but is also available via digital retailers. Along with the feature film, the iTunes digital copy of Cruella includes the following extras:
Deleted Scenes (1:54) – There are only two deleted scenes. “Hotel Heist Hallway” shows Estella talking her way out of getting caught (before they turn tail and run away). “Baroness Rejects Design Sketches” shows her slowly walking by the designers at their desks and tearing up people’s work. She then slices Estella’s off her pad and hangs it up.
Bloopers (1:57) – This one’s a little brief, but it’s an amusing collection of the actors messing up their lines and otherwise having fun on set. (1 “for G-d’s sakes”)
The Two Emma’s (10:47) is about the pairing of Emma Stone and Emma Thompson. Here they talk about casting both actresses, what they brought to the table individually and them playing together. They also talk about Cruella and the process of Estella becoming Cruella. (1 “G-d”)
The Sidekick Angle (5:30) is about Joel Fry’s Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser’s Horace and what they bring to the film. Emma couldn’t say enough great things about Fry and how he is one of the best actors she’s ever worked with. Paul also talks about how he decided to emulate Bob Hoskins’ voice from the movie Hook for Horace.
Cruella Couture (9:44) is about the incredible costumes designed for the movie. Jenny Bevin was the film’s costume designer who talks about the many, many different outfits she and her team had to design for all of the characters in the movie – and there were A LOT of dresses!
The World of Cruella (6:25) details all of the different locations the film production visited. They filmed in 45 different locations on 96 sets! They also talk about recreating the famous Liberty store on a set just for the movie. (1 “G-d”)
New Dogs… Old Tricks (6:05) covers all of the dogs featured in the movie. The dog Buddy was played by a dog named Bobby who was found in Cypress, adopted and several days later was cast in the movie!
Cruella 101 (3:36) is a short rundown about the character in this movie and the animated original film. They decided to set this film in the 1970’s instead of 1949 like the original one. The original animated Cruella had been inspired by actress Tallulah Bankhead, so Emma Stone tried to emulate her in this movie as well. (And there’s even a cameo of Tallulah in a movie on a TV screen in Cruella.)
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 6/29/21)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: We briefly see a baby girl’s bare butt during birth; A man walks out of hotel room in just a towel; Artie is a fashion enthusiast who owns his own clothing store. He’s clearly gay as he dresses and acts very feminine; We see Horace dressed as a woman briefly as a disguise.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “h*ll,” 1 “cripes”; 1 “Good L-rd,” 1 “G-d,” 1 “d*mn” in a song
Alcohol/Drugs: Estella’s boss drinks liquor in his office; Estella takes her boss’s bottle after everyone has left the store and drinks it straight from the bottle. We see her wake the next morning having passed out from the late night binge; Baroness has a champagne toast at her gala. Cruella enters and pulls out a glass from a tower of glasses and causes a spill and crash of glass to the floor; Estella and baroness have champagne
Blood/Gore: Baroness nicks Estella’s arm by accident with a blade she carries and we see a little blood on Estella’s arm; We see a little bit of blood under Horace’s nose.
Violence: Little Estella rips a doll sweater her mom just made; In school, Estella is pushed and hit in the face with a spit ball; We see Estella beating up a kid on the school yard; We see Estella getting thrown into a dumpster; Estella hits a kid in the crotch with a ball; A trio of dalmatians chase Estella and she jumps away into a swing and then hops down keeps running as they chase her, rolling down a hill. They then pounce a woman and push her off a balcony over a cliff; Young Horace kicks young Jasper in the chest; A man accidentally steps on Estella’s hand (and she reacts in pain); Baroness nicks Estella’s arm by accident with a blade she carries and we see a little blood on Estella’s arm. She then holds up her arm and uses it to illustrate the kind of red she wants the designers to use; We see a brief montage of women being tackled at a party; A dog pounces on a man and he freaks out; Cruella enters Baroness’ gala and pulls out a glass from a tower of champagne glasses and causes them to crash to the floor; Cruella strikes a match and burns up her outer dress, revealing a different one beneath; Cruella smacks and hits several men with her cane; Rats cause a group of party guests to freak out. A man falls onto a cake and people run around; Cruella sideswipes several cars while driving. We see one of the cars crash; She trashes Horace’s bowl and glass while he’s eating breakfast; We see the dalmatians tearing up a couch; Baroness pops a bottle cork into the waiter’s face; Jasper pulls a nose hair out of a watchman’s nose to wake him out; Thousands of moths fly out of a vault, causing people to panic; We see a couple guys tied up and one of them gets hit; A woman is tied up as others pour gasoline all over her apartment. They then gag her and set the place on fire, leaving her for dead (but she is rescued); The Baroness throws a chair in anger and it hits a maid in the leg; Cruella crashes a garbage truck into the front of a police station; There’s a car chase with a garbage truck where the truck crashes into things and several cars crash into each other; The Baroness sprays man in the face with perfume; Baroness tazes a man and then a maid who collapses; Two men tackle two women; A man grabs a woman and restrains her on a car, thinking she’s someone else; Horace kicks a man in the face; A little dog jumps on a man’s face and he throws him to the floor. Artie hits man from behind; A woman is pushed off a balcony, but we see she is okay.