8/10 Cruella is a bold, fast, fun, intricately detailed and remarkably complex film about power, destiny, art and cruelty. In the past decade’s long and mostly painful parade of uncurious, unnecessary remakes of Disney classics, it immediately becomes the best and by a significant margin.
London, 1970s- A little gay kid named Estella Miller (Emma Stone, who also produces executively) grows up orphaned on the streets of London as a petty thief who really wants to be a fashion designer. In her childhood, Miller was forced to hide her extreme gayness, stuffing her split black-and-white hair under a rust wig and suppressing her sadistic, borderline psychotic tendencies, which she externalizes as a separate personality called Cruella.
Miller lands a dream job with London fashion mogul Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), but soon realizes it was the baroness who killed her mother by siccing her attack dalmatians on her. Miller dusts off her suppressed gayness, using her natural hair as a disguise and adopting Cruella as an alter ego to wage what can only be described as guerilla fashion warfare on the baroness, sabotaging her new lines, ambushing and upstaging her at every event and sucking all the air out of the fashion media, bent on taking away the baroness’ identity – her professional stature, her confidence, her dogs and her possessions – before taking her life.
Cruella is a spectacular film to look at. The color palette is simple, it’s mostly contrast lowered to the point of almost being a dull black-and-white movie with the reds cranked all the way up, highlighting both skin and Cruella’s frequently red dresses – the baroness’ colors, by comparison, are mostly greens and golds, and she explicitly prefers black and white designs.
The main conflict plays out as a war between fashion designers, and the costume design is proportionately stellar. Cruella cycles through an outrageous wardrobe of dresses that all double as psychological weapons – to the movie’s discredit, it’s spelled out how in the dialogue when it never needs to be. The makeup department rises to the same level, of course. The soundtrack is perfect.
Director Craig Gillespie brought in Jenny Beavan, who recently won an Oscar for designing the vibrant post-apocalypse looks of Mad Max: Fury Road, and they proceeded to build the film out of the London’s ‘70s punk movement. The history woven into the film is palpable and impossible not to recognize, the searing post-Vietnam resentment right at the surface daring audiences to try and ignore it, the real-world anti-establishment movement breathing fire into Cruella’s fictional battle against the fashion establishment as a whole and her cold anti-mother figure personally.
Cruella features the seventh “first” out gay character in a Disney movie in the past decade or so in vintage clothes store owner Artie (John McCrea), and despite what you may have heard, he’s just as easily removeable a bit part as the rest of them. This is by necessity – these movies are designed to be sold in China, which is aggressive about censoring foreign movies and doesn’t knowingly allow queer characters to hit its screens. To get their product into theaters in this part of the world, Disney often makes separate edits with the openly gay characters removed.
But Cruella de Vil is gay. As Disney’s series of remakes have evolved at the same time the company is orienting itself more toward China, they’ve worked to make the heavily queer-coded characters they’re remaking more straight, but Cruella de Vil is about 90% queer coding by volume. Her role in the 1961 101 Dalmations cartoon is to embody the gay attack on the dalmations’ nuclear family unit, which is part of what makes her a perfect villain to rehabilitate in a much more queer-friendly world. There is no recognizable version of this character who isn’t delightedly gay.
This is as true in Cruella as in any other media with the character. After literally coming out of the birth canal with bichromatic hair – she’s graphically “born that way” within the runtime – she comes out to the baroness by bringing a red dress into her black and white ball. She smuggles it in under a white sheet, itself a dress that looks like it belongs at such a ball, which she then lights on fire, turning herself into an explosion of color, a literally flaming woman in a blood-colored dress surrounded by a sea of black and white.
You could cut with a knife the tension between Cruella’s vibrant queerness and punk roots and its corporate restraints – it’s really the core delight, watching the movie rebel against itself within its own runtime. But that runtime ends. The tension it is addressing goes on.