We’ve learned in this generation of studio filmmaking that every movie villain has a backstory. It’s just a wonder that they don’t make a mental health special with Oprah.
Last year it was “Joker.” This year it’s Disney’s Cruella deVil. Next year, why not Javert from “Les Miz”? His parents, you know, were very neglectful.
So Cruella: not to give too much away, but her mom ran out of money when she was a kid. They go see a wealthy, unidentifiable patron in a castle but mom dies there (I won’t tell you how, but recognizable canines are thought to be the culprit). Cruella, known then as Estella, escapes and lives by her wits. She’s going to be a fashion designer.
The story starts out as a Disney fable, moves Estella to London’s Swinging 60s and Carnaby Street, and then to the world “The Devil Wears Prada” as our heroine swings a job working for an Anna Wintour type called The Baroness, played by Emma Thompson. who runs a Vogue like empire. As Estella sews, the screenplay is stitched together from so many remnants of other movies.
So Estella is like Anne Hathaway, running errands for The Baroness, who, of course, is petty, cruel, snarky, demeaning, and lots of fun. Emma Thompson is a hoot, and plays The Baroness as if she’s Glenn Close in the original live action “101 Dalmatians.” There isn’t a bit of scenery she doesn’t chew and spit out.
As Estella is continually trounced by The Baroness she kinda snaps, and another personality comes out: Cruella. How she gets the DeVil you’ll have to wait for an explanation from Paul Walter Hauser, who’s one of Cruella’s delightfully dim henchmen along with Joel Fry and John McCrea. Together, they are right out of the campy and beloved “Batman” TV series of the 60s. (Mark Strong, sprung from more serious matters, is The Baroness’s aide de camp until he’s not.)
“Prada”‘s Anne Hathaway soon turns into into Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, but you know, not actually violent. Estella/Cruella, after all, is played by recent Oscar winner Emma Stone, who finds this whole thing delicious. Even as two different screenplays try to mesh together — one by “Prada” scribe Aline Brosh McKenna, the other from Dana Fox and Tony McNamara — Stone is smart enough that she’s figured out how to handle her character. She’s really so much fun, and so good at leading us through all this mayhem, that you can forgive the Frankenstein like construction of the story. Just follow her, she won’t lead you astray.
Plus, the sets, costumes, makeup, production design, are really killer. Fiona Crombie’s credits include “The Favourite,” and here she’s matched and upped her game considerably. Even though there’s a considerable pop soundtrack, Nicholas Britell has added a lush and gothic score as a thematic underpinning.
The whole effect is over the top and satisfyingly wacky. Poor Estella, she’s the Catwoman of the Disney universe. And she’s not done, not by a long shot.
“Cruella” will be a big A hit, I think, for Memorial Day weekend, kind of a nice relief after 14 months of tension. And a nice counterprogramming to the other must see movie of the weekend, “A Quiet Place, Part 2.”
Two things worry me, however. Disney held reviews until this morning, which often indicates they’re worried. What are they worried about? Small children are not the audience for “Cruella.” Unless this generation of toddlers is inured to tragedy by the events of the last year, they may take umbrage certainly at set up. But who knows? Maybe I’m too sensitive. After all “Bambi” was tough stuff and kids love it (after a few tears). They’ll get over it.