Cruella movie poster - photo credit Disney

Cruella: Sympathy for the She-devil

A review of Disney's new movie: Cruella

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Anas

Anas is a freelance writer from Morocco with an interest in emerging technologies, media analysis, and transnational activism.

Cruella: Sympathy for the She-devil

In the tradition of Maleficent and The Joker, the new Cruella movie promises to explore the birth of an antagonist and to revive a character who has impacted the generations of spectators who have grown up with Disney productions. Cruella, the puppy killer, is this time played by Emma Stone in an ambitious retelling of the character. In London in the 1970s, Estella is a full-time con artist determined to make a name for herself in the fashion industry. When she is noticed by fashion maven Baroness von Hellman, Estella gradually transforms into a cruel villainous character. With her black and white hair, Cruella reveals herself in a new light; all nuance and far from the Manichean vision that Disney had offered us in the past.

The lure of the wicked

While it may be difficult to imagine feeling tenderness for the character, Emma Stone succeeds in making Cruella sympathetic thanks to her acting. Because that is the whole point of the film, to increase her sympathy capital while offering us a dive into the origins of the character in a punk retelling of the mythical villain of 101 Dalmatians. On this point, Craig Gillespie's film largely fulfills its functions. Irreverent, Emma Stone bursts onto the screen and shows us that once again, no role can resist her. The actress, who made her name in La La Land, gets a kick out of playing this anti-heroine, and you can feel it through the big screen. She brilliantly personifies this duality between shyness for Estella and exuberance for Cruella.

The film can also count on Emma Thompson, whose talent is no longer to be proven. She lends her features here to the Baroness, a fashion figure who reminds us of a certain Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Just as cruel, if not more, than her alter ego, the actress offers a nice counterpoint to the character of Cruella and allows the film to nuance its purpose. On the other hand, the rest of the cast is relegated to the rank of stooges, and even the excellent Mark Strong does not get a role worthy of his talent. Let's also note that despite a first part that is more than pleasing, the plot loses steam halfway through, which is the fault of a more conventional narration that does not really fit with the zany personality of the character.

Cruel to be kind

Visually, Cruella is a real success. Craig Gillespie brilliantly immortalizes the birth of the character. Although the film is far from being as scandalous as his previous feature film, it is clear that the filmmaker's work has not been (too) sanitized by Disney. In many ways, "Cruella" is the twin sister to “I, Tonya “, as much in its cinematography as in its thematic. Two female characters hated by all but obscured from view, in search of fame but especially of approval, in lack of reference points, with complicated origins and personal lives, not to mention a style of dress that makes people talk. Craig Gillespie’s direction indeed seems wiser here, but it doesn't lack guts, or punch and the moments of pure emotion are numerous. His directing manages to sublimate the whole.

The fact remains that the narration does not take the risk of going totally into the politically incorrect. It is hard to imagine how the young Cruella will later become the insatiable fashion goddess who terrorizes canine lovers. But after all, there are often several versions of the same story, and the one told by Disney is far from being as bland as we might have feared.

Unlike Maleficent, Cruella benefits from real artistic risk-taking in both its form and its content. This feeling is devilishly reinforced by the breathtaking sets. But where Disney has concentrated its efforts is undoubtedly on the costumes. With a wardrobe that would make the greatest fashion figures swoon, Cruella is an icon, and costume designer Fiona Crombie's eye for detail is no doubt a part of that. She had already worked on The Favorite, starring Emma Stone as well. She repeats the feat and manages to offer another dimension to the film.

Who let the dogs out?

With the emergence of punk as a backdrop, Cruella mirrors a musical mutation, and this is felt in the director's choices for the soundtrack. Between The Rolling Stones, Supertramp, and The Doors, Craig Gillespie addresses a love letter to squealing guitars and epileptic drums. The original music, composed by Nicholas Britell, is not to be outdone when it comes to materializing the duality of the character.

While the risk-taking is less flamboyant than one might have imagined, Cruella easily stands out as the most ambitious retelling of the Disney classics. After the other numerous sanitized and bland live-action films, the villain of 101 Dalmatians brings a breath of fresh air. Well, let's not get too carried away; this is still a Disney movie: Scripted clichés are inescapable.

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