I grew up watching 101 Dalmatians, but it was never a Disney film that I really latched onto, like The Lion King or the Jungle Book. Still, I have enough fond memories of it to really question why we were getting a sequel/prequel focused on the big villain of the piece. Sure, Cruella de Vil is a visually arresting character, and she has some classic moments (and has aged remarkably well; I had no idea how old the original was before watching some of the extras!), but she's hardly top 10 for interesting, nuanced Disney villains. She's a quirky old lady who prefers clothes over animals... why do I need a back story for that? Isn't it just a commentary on the excesses and inhumanity of wealth and capitalism?
Still, with Cruella coming to streaming services, and with a cast who I generally enjoy, we figured why not give it a go. I'd seen the trailers and gotten a strong Joker/Harley Quinn vibe, so figured this was just Disney trying to tap into that money-making zeitgeist. I was therefore quite surprised to find out that Cruella is actually a really solid film, with some great characters, and a genuinely interesting plot.
I thought Emma Stone was perfect throughout, and both Emma Thompson and Mark Strong clearly had a lot of fun, but where the cast really shone were with her found-family/henchmen, Jasper and Horace, played by Joel Fry (Game of Thrones) and Paul Walter Hauser (BlacKkKlansman) respectively. They were well written, interesting characters to begin with, but this duo of actors elevated them to really fascinating places and made every scene they were in an absolute joy. Comic timing, emotional impact, nuance, all somehow dialled up a notch. It would be unfair not to mention John McCrea (Everybody's Talking About Jamie) as well, who brings an element of real stagecraft and glamour to proceedings.
Layer on top of that some interesting plot twists, great pacing, and absolutely incredible design work, and Cruella really smashed my expectations out of the park. The sets are beautiful, the world-building is novel and interesting whilst remaining grounded, and the dresses are something else entirely, particularly the set-pieces used to upstage The Baroness. Cruella's perfectly framed feathered gown atop the taxi; the unfolding garbage train; the simplistic yet impactful motorbike ensemble; the fire reveal; and, of course, that twist about the jewelled insect carapaces – the creative team really outdid themselves on both plot inclusion and outright design.
Honestly, the biggest issue I have with Cruella is that it's a prequel to 101 Dalmatians. I mean, the nods to the future film are largely subtle and quite fun (I'm sure I missed a few), rather than in-your-face, but that's not the problem. The problem is that this version of Cruella, Jasper, and Horace is just so much more interesting to the one we know she becomes, it creates unnecessary roadblocks for the story and characters. She has to end up slightly bitter and twisted in the mansion; her relationships have to devolve from heart-felt to business-like; her genius has to become subdued. All so that, by the end of the film, it's not utterly absurd that she would evolve into the pantomime villain of the original animation. It's a shame, because outside of that remit I think Cruella could have been something much more special. It takes the same approach of reinvention as Maleficent but, thanks to a fantastic cast and creative team, elevates itself well beyond its source material, yet can never truly break free of those chains and expectations.