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Disney’s “Cruella” is Darkly Wicked Fun (Review)

Disney has always had a habit of raiding their past in order to fuel their present-day success. Before home video, they frequently reissued their classic films in theaters and that eventually turned into the cash-cow of the Disney Vault wherein their most classic films would get released on vhs/dvd/blu-ray for a limited time and then they would build up demand for those same titles by pulling them off the market for years at a time.

In 2014, they turned their focus onto a famous Disney villain by releasing the live-action film “Maleficent,” which had Angelina Jolie tackling the evil queen from the animated classic “Sleeping Beauty.” It racked up over $750 million at the international box office and spawned a sequel, so it can’t be a big surprise that they are back to flesh out another origin story for one of their biggest movie villains of all time.

Cruella de Vil has been scaring kids since she first appeared in Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel “The Hundred and One Dalmations” and then Disney’s subsequent animated feature that followed in 1961. The first attempt at a live-action Cruella came with Glenn Close taking on the legendary role in 1996.

Emma Stone has some pretty big shoes to fill in this new take on Cruella’s backstory, but she really delivers the goods. This time around we begin when she is known as a young woman named Estella. Her mother’s tragic and unexpected death results in her forming a bond with two petty thieves named Jasper (Joey Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).

Her obvious talents for design help her go straight and she ends up working for a grumpy designer named Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson) who begrudgingly takes a shine to Estella based on the quality of her work that can be easily exploited.

After some extraordinarily evil revelations, Estella becomes consumed with the rage and vigor of her new alter ego, Cruella and becomes a double agent within the Baroness’ ranks, working to overshadow her at every turn. Stone and Thompson are clearly having a blast with these characters and the darker the story turns, the more larger than life everything becomes.

Let’s get one thing straight: this is not for little kids. It earns every ounce of its PG-13 and is all the better for it. “Violence and thematic elements” are the official reasons for the rating and it would be hard to dampen the tone to be more palatable for younger kids.

The film is also jam-packed with music syncs, at times almost comically so. Everything from Queen, Blondie, The Doors, and Nina Simone is in the mix (along with a new end-credit track from Florence and the Machine). And perhaps it gets a little on-the-nose with moments like Cruella walking a fashion show runway to a raucous cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Subtle, it ain’t.

If “Cruella” has a major failing it is in the truly terrible CGI dogs that run amok. The Baroness has three angry dalmations and there isn’t one moment on screen where they are convincing.

But it helps that the creative pedigree behind this adaptation are top notch. The overall art direction and costumes are magnificent and, if there is any justice, will be headed for awards season. The special effects team? Maybe not so much.

Director Craig Gillespie’s last film was the award-winning biopic, “I, Tonya.” The storyline here went through a few passes over the years, but the final version used is courtesy of Oscar-nominated playwright Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”), who also shares co-writing credit with Dana Fox. Their screenplay is not without its faults, but it is astonishingly sharp, dark, and wickedly fun.

“Cruella” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. It will also be available to watch at home for a $29.99 fee using Disney+ Premier Access. Free access for all Disney+ subscribers will follow on August 27, 2021.

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