Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

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Containing one surprise after another, Craig Gillespie’s “Cruella” is, despite its Disney label, not for young viewers. Dark, and at times befitting of its title, this film takes a page from Todd Phillips’ “Joker” to provide an origin story that casts the titular character in a distinctly new and somewhat sympathetic light.

Though the film ultimately overstays its welcome, Gillespie and his screenwriters keep viewers on their heels with one twist after another, expanding on the titular Cruella’s existing mythology and providing a human element behind the grand caricature we’ve come to know.

Orphaned at a young age, Cruella (Emma Stone) has never fit in, her headstrong, independent ways often butting up against authority. However, fate has a way of putting us where we need to be, and as chance would have it, our young anti-heroine, after a life on the streets, crosses paths with The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a diva of the first order who runs the top fashion house in London.

Before long, Cruella finds herself in her inner circle, providing her new boss with striking new designs that she has no problem claiming as her own. This, of course, would irk anyone, but what pushes Cruella over the edge is the discovery of a vile incident from The Baroness’ past that infuriates her, prompting her to try to reduce her fashion empire to rubble.

If, while watching this, you say to yourself, “This sure is an awful lot like ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’” that’s no accident. Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the Meryl Streep-Anne Hathaway feature, provided the story that Dana Fox and Tony McNamara adapted into a screenplay.

Setting it against London’s Mod fashion movement of the late ’60s, the details of which viewers of a certain age will appreciate, they use this to not only provide reasons as to how Cruella ticks but also to introduce her two henchmen, Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively), who are far more competent than the bumbling idiots in previous entries. The reasoning behind the name of Cruella’s car and estate are dropped as clever asides, indicative of the wry wit Fox and McNamara employ.

In the end, the film weighs in heavily on the argument of nature vs. nurture. Stone, slightly miscast but game throughout, does a fine job with Cruella’s arc — which is a tragic one, to be sure, as Cruella is unaware, despite warnings from Jasper and Horace, that her quest for vengeance is turning her into as big a villain as her target.

Stone’s greatest contribution is her ability to remind us that Cruella is to be pitied more than feared, a victim of a harsh world and bad circumstances.

As for Thompson, she’s having a grand time, her lines dripping with so much disdain that her co-stars likely had to be dried off. Regal and cold when The Baroness is in full flower, her scenes of despair when things start to crumble about her are no less effective.

To be sure, the film is too long by 20 minutes and becomes repetitious, but its bizarre nature kept me entranced throughout. Again, this is not for children. But this sharp-edged, surprisingly vicious tale is a unique entry in the Mouse House canon, one perfectly suited for those looking for something odd and bizarre in a mainstream movie.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter @ckoplinski. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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