Growing up on animated films, there are any number of terrifying villains that easily scare young children with their wicked and cruel nature.

One such baddie with a demonic last name and a penchant for turning puppies into fashion statements felt especially repulsive and scary to adolescent cinephiles.

After two Angelina Jolie-led features putting the antagonist of Sleeping Beauty at the center of the plot, the Mickey Mouse company has set its sights on a redemption – or at least anti-hero – arc for Cruella De Vil.

Director Craig Gillespie’s Cruella far exceeds the expectations of previous live action iterations of classic Disney animated IP and is a ton of fun for adults who grew up on either the 1961 animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians or Glenn Close’s turn as the villainess in 1996’s live-action 101 Dalmatians.

The film is essentially an origin story for the character, set in London during the punk-rock 1970s as a young Cruella seeks to make a name for herself in the fashion world while also picking pockets alongside a pair of thieves she befriends along the way.

It’s an incredibly difficult task for Gillespie and Disney to salvage the Cruella character and it shouldn’t be possible given just how reviling her intentions have proven to be.

Simply put, the only reason Cruella works at all is casting Oscar winner Emma Stone in the title role.

Her performance as the reimagined Cruella is very against type for her and yet exactly what Gillespie needs to center the entire film. Audiences need to be magnetized by the actor in the tole to overcome the fact that they are conditioned to be reviled at a villainess who eventually plots to turn dalmatians into a fur coat.

Cruella also provides the additional challenge of presenting the title character as a dual personality – the kinder, more reserved Estella and the darker, aggressive Cruella. Stone has to maintain a keen sense of where the character is within the context of the script and within each scene and does a terrific job of blending the two into one cohesive performance.

Emma Thompson does a terrific job as fashion designer The Baroness, who serves as the film’s antagonist. Alongside Joel Fry’s charming work as Jasper, Paul Walter Hauser continues to prove why he’s one of the best character actors in Hollywood today with a delightfully humorous turn as absent-minded henchman Horace.

Gillespie certainly leaves his mark on the film for better (dynamic visuals and cutting dialogue) and for worse (unnecessarily long handicam shots, excessive run time at over 130 minutes).

The technical aspects of Cruella are especially alluring with two-time Academy Award winning costume designer Jenny Beavan making the film an absolute must re-watch simply for the endless plethora of fantastical, outlandishly fashionable pieces of art that Stone, Thompson and countless extras wear scene to scene.

In a film that sparks from a woman’s obsession with fashion, Beavan creates a whole world within each stitch, color palette decision and cut. Often viewers are so drawn in by what Stone is wearing that her magnetic performance becomes somewhat hidden behind artistry in black and white.

The visual paradise of Cruella extends to its entire production design – a hallmark of any top-caliber Disney film – as 1970s London engulfs the screen through elaborate staging and crisp, emboldened cinematography from director of photography Nicolas Karakatsanis.

A signature of Gillespie’s style in 2017’s terrific biopic I, Tonya, major moments in Cruella are themed with ‘needle drop’ infusions of a variety of era-appropriate punk rock anthems. In one or two instances, these ‘drops’ add to the larger personality of the film, but often the ‘Now That’s What I Call Music!’-esque soundtrack drowns out Oscar-winning composer Nicholas Britell’s masterful mood-setting score.

Cruella could easily become a frontrunner in technical categories come awards season, especially in costumes and production design.

Where the film may get lost, however, is in its marketing as parents of younger children may simply see the Disney origin story as a family friendly outing at the movies.

Gillespie’s film is much darker and more relentless with its pace than a typical Disney venture and children may get lost, confused or bored by large stretches of the film. Adults, though, should revel in just how uniquely ambitious this interpretation becomes.

It’s incredibly reductive to suggest Cruella is an amalgamation of Joker, Birds of Prey and The Devil Wears Prada, but there’s certainly parallels there that are unmistakable comparison points between this film and those “influences.”

The least Disney movie of all traditional Disney films in quite some time, Cruella marches to the beat of its own black and white drum while simply not caring about audience expectations or response.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise so far in 2021, Cruella is certainly worth seeking out in theaters although probably not quite worth a $29.99 price point for home viewing on Disney+.

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