Grade:  B+
Rated PG-13

I did not expect to like Cruella as much as I did, because the two previous times Disney tried live-action versions of the popular 1961 animated film 101 Dalmatians they produced doggie doo. That’s not just my opinion. While the original animated film got a 98 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the 1996 live-action remake starring Glenn Close as villainess Cruella De Ville earned just a 41 percent rating, and the 2000 sequel did even worse (31 percent).

But RT critics awarded this new origin story Cruella a 74 percent “fresh” rating, while 97 percent of the audience gave it high marks. After watching it, I can see why. It’s smartly written and full of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments. Emma Stone has fun with the titular role without going over-the-top campy—and that’s a tough tone to pull off. Close didn’t even come close.

Stone received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, and it was well deserved because of the pressure she faced. Essentially Cruella—like Disney’s Maleficent before it—is similar to a superhero origin story. As the lead performer goes, so goes the film.

Disney is trying to tell the stories of their villains with some sympathy, but isn’t that a risky business? Disney villains are notorious and gigglesnort popular because they are villains of a gigantic sort. Maleficent was the fourth highest grossing film of 2014, and Cruella was 15th in 2021 box office revenue. Since Maleficent was also a bit more sinister than Cruella, might that account for the difference? Do audiences still prefer villains to be more villainous than misunderstood?

Cruella is the result when you pair historical tongue-in-cheek drama screenwriter Tony McNamara (TV’s [Catherine] The Great and The Favourite) with light rom-com specialist Dana Fox (Isn’t It Romantic, How to Be Single) . . . and then hire Craig Gillespie (I ,Tonya) to direct. In fact, Cruella has a Tonya Harding-like “bad girl” as the main character, and it’s a short leap from bumbling henchmen who conspired to break her rival skater’s leg to a couple of bumbling henchmen who conspire to kidnap some Dalmatians. It’s a witty romp through Prequel-land that nonetheless includes, Disney being Disney, a child’s mother being killed. 

That happens early in the film, and what follows is a cross between Oliver Twist and The Devil Wears Prada. After witnessing (and thinking she was responsible for) the death of her mother at an upper-class party, Estella runs away to ‘70s London, where she meets two street urchins named Jasper and Horace. It doesn’t take long for her to become the “brains” of the outfit while they provide the brawn. They survive by stealing and working small-time cons until the guys get her a job at a department store. There she draws the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson, channeling Prada’s Meryl Streep), who offers her a job in her house of fashion. Estella accepts and begins serving her apprenticeship to an authoritarian boss that scares the heck out of all her employees.

The plot kicks into high gear when Estella notices the Baroness wearing a necklace that once was her mother’s. Told it belonged to a former employee who had stolen it, Estella decides to make it her mission to reclaim the necklace with the help of Jasper and Horace—engagingly played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. To do that, she creates an alter-ego named “Cruella” and creates a spectacle at the Baroness’s ball. More happens, of course, because somehow we’ve got to get from where the Dalmatians are an agent of the evil Baroness to where they’re associated with Cruella.

Eventually it all fits together nicely, though the film’s chief accomplishment is to create a prequel villain that we end up rooting for, despite our later love-to-hate-her attitudes.  This one is absolutely worth adding to your home video library, even if you have Disney+. Disney has a history of releasing titles only for limited time periods, so who knows how long it will be streaming?

Entire family:  Yes (despite that Bambi’s mother moment)
Run time:  134 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Studio/Distributor:  Disney
Bonus features:  B
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements

Language:  2/10—We’re talking Cruella DEVIL and a place called Hell Hall, so of course there are minor uses of “hell” and damn” and a handful or two more of insults

Sex:  0/10—Other than some cleavage and leg-showing outfits, there’s nothing much here except a nude baby and a guy with a towel around his waist

Violence:  4/10—Not much, but what there is stands out:  a guy gets whacked in the face, several people are tazed, a dog bites a man on the face, a bully gets physically attacked, someone is tied up and the room lit on fire, and, most significant, that early-in-the-film Bambi’s mother incident

Adult situations:  3/10—Mostly social drinking, but there is a scene where the title character gets buzzed; there’s also one hard-rock scene and one scene where, shades of Snow White, someone is instructed to kill a baby

Takeaway:  While no villain prequels are in post-production now, you can bet that we’ll get another in the next five or six years. Jafar, maybe?