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Cruella review – wickedly entertaining Disney revamp

Emma Stone shines in director Craig Gillespie’s bold and flashy origin story of the infamous 101 Dalmatians villain

The words “infamous villain’s origin story” feel tainted by Todd Phillips’ smug antihero comic book movie Joker, but Cruella, a bold, brash, and often brilliant take on the backstory of the notorious antagonist from 101 Dalmatians, is nothing like that – it owes much more to far better films. Fans of I, Tonya, The Favourite, The Devil Wears Prada... this one’s for you. For everyone else – well, there’s enough quick-witted, sharp-tongued entertainment to go around, too.

Emma Stone’s comedic chops flourish with more flamboyance than ever as our protagonist (“Estella” on a good day, “Cruella” when, well, you know when), a genius child mourning the death of her mother (Emily Beecham), and trying to find a sense of self as an aspiring fashion designer in 1970s London. Joined by petty thieves Horace and Jasper (a brilliantly charming double act from Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry) as her chosen family, the world really seems like it could be her oyster – until Emma Thompson’s Baroness von Hellman, Estella’s boss, reveals a troubling secret about the young girl’s past, and suddenly there’s more than just fashion at stake.

And so back to those touchstone movies: à la Devil Wears Prada, Stone and Thompson match each other’s deliciously wicked energy, pantomimic one second and brutal and biting the next. Their dynamic twists the underdog-resents-girlboss trope, as both women use the same tricks to constantly challenge what comes next rather than everyone staying firmly in their place. The bitter rivalry also echoes Stone’s work with Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, which shares a screenwriter in Tony McNamara and gives this Disney revamp the studio’s silliest and most satisfying dialogue in years (Choose your fighter: “You smell like an anchovy” or “Thank you for the crumpet and the crazy story”). But Cruella is best appreciated, perhaps, as a sister piece to another kinetic portrait of a woman on the verge – director Craig Gillespie’s previous outing, I, Tonya.

While that film was a loose and free retelling of the infamous fallout of figure skater Tonya Harding – not quite the origin story of a notorious dog killer – some patterns reveal this to be an unmistakable Gillespie picture: his playful distortion of the truth, his wry understanding of womanhood as a rude, noisy thing, and – above all else – his intense love of iconic (if a bit obvious) music, translated into an overwhelming number of needle drops. The context of Cruella (London at the height of its anarchic self-discovery) lends itself to Gillespie’s inclinations for boisterous soundtracking, of course, but still: Supertramp, Queen, Nancy Sinatra, Deep Purple, Blondie, The Rolling Stones – the gang’s all here.

Cruella, with its never-ending punk rock cues and lavish costume design (Jenny Beavan is sure to take centre stage throughout awards season for this), knows it’s wildly over the top. It wants you to laugh until you’re all out of air. Every eye roll is an event. But from the moment you agree to leave the measured, logical mechanics of our world behind and spend a couple of hours in Cruella’s – bad, mad, but also really quite rad – mind instead, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Faced with a similar set of circumstances, the Joker might have blown the whole place up and we’d only be left with rubble – ironically, this villain knows how to laugh at herself a little more.

It’s about taking ownership of your talent; of challenging your DNA and your dreams; of drawing blood and biting back. The Dalmatians have their own story already – this isn’t a black and white biopic about how the woman who terrorised them was impossibly misunderstood. That would be awfully drab, and certainly a little tasteless. Cruella would simply never allow it.

Cruella is released in UK cinemas on 28 May.

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