There is surely no better named baddie in all of children’s literature than Cruella de Vil. She trumps Roald Dahl’s Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker – and maybe even Lord Voldemort.
So it’s a surprise that it has taken until now for the iconic scourge of dalmatians to get a film all to herself.
Well, Disney’s new title, Cruella, certainly makes up for lost time. It’s good fun, if a bit long, and Emma Stone, such a hoot three years ago in The Favourite, once more gets to wrap her lips around a set of frightfully English vowels as the sly schemer de Vil whose ambition devours everything in its path.
It is 25 years since Glenn Close played Cruella in 101 Dalmatians, the first live-action adaptation of the children’s book by Dodie Smith that was first animated by Disney in 1961.
Emma Thompson in the Walt Disney Studios new film: Cruella (2021)
This film is a kind of prequel which shows us how a girl originally called Estella acquires her wickedness and changes her name.
Of course, sensibilities have changed since 1996 and Cruella’s desire to turn dalmatians into fur coats – inspired by an actual remark one of Dodie Smith’s friends blithely made about her beloved pet Pongo – is duly played down in this film.
You can almost sniff the anxiety Disney executives must have felt at the alarming prospect of enraging animal rights activists.
Instead, the writers and director Craig Gillespie (whose last film I, Tonya was also about a vengeful anti-heroine) try to make their lead character vaguely sympathetic and her motivations understandable.
Emma Stone and Joel Fry in a scene from Cruella. It is 25 years since Glenn Close played Cruella in 101 Dalmatians
In certain striking respects Cruella is reminiscent of 2019’s Joker, another prequel that sought to explain how Batman’s arch-enemy and super- villain emerged. But one major difference is that this is a comedy aimed at children – with a release perfectly timed for the half-term holiday.
Some youngsters might be befuddled by the plot, which could have stood a bit of muzzling. At over two hours, it’s 20 minutes too long – but there are still more reasons to see it than not. The story begins by romping through orphaned Estella’s unhappy childhood in which she tried to get by as a pickpocket in 1970s London, befriending a pair of scallywags, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), along the way.
Then, having dyed her distinctive two-tone hair, she lands a job with a terrifyingly grand and vindictive fashion empress known only as the Baroness (Emma Thompson, conspicuously trying to outdo Meryl Streep in the 2006 classic The Devil Wears Prada).
In certain striking respects Cruella is reminiscent of 2019’s Joker
The story begins by romping through orphaned Estella’s unhappy childhood in which she tried to get by as a pickpocket in 1970s London, befriending a pair of scallywags, Jasper (Joel Fry, right) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, left), along the way
In her high-handed way, the Baroness acknowledges that Estella might have some talent as a designer. ‘I think you’re … something,’ she says, veering uncomfortably close to actual praise.
But their relationship is doomed and when Estella discovers the Baroness was mixed up in the death of her mother (Emily Beecham) ten years earlier, she reinvents herself as a rival designer, Cruella, whose real identity nobody knows.
She sets out not just to eclipse but to humiliate her formidable ex-boss. And de Vil certainly doesn’t wear Prada – she appears to wear a coat made from the Baroness’s kidnapped dalmatians, although it’s a detail swiftly glossed over.
Both Stone and Thompson are on fine form as the two antagonists stealing scenes from each other with Mark Strong, usually such a powerful actor, getting hardly a look-in as the Baroness’s long-serving right-hand man.
Cruella opens tomorrow in cinemas across the UK
There are laugh-out-loud moments for grown-ups as well as children and a gloriously eclectic soundtrack that offers the Rolling Stones, The Clash, Blondie, David Bowie, Queen, The J Geils Band, Judy Garland, Doris Day and Ken Dodd – like a Spotify list with a split personality.
For fans of the 1961 animation, the original Cruella de Vil song also gets an airing. You might recall the lyrics: ‘This vampire bat. This inhuman beast. She ought to be locked up and never released…’
Well, that’s not the message depicted here. We are clearly meant to root for Cruella in her battles with the Baroness – she is one of Hollywood’s modern screen baddies who deserve our empathy. That’s really not what Dodie Smith intended at all. But then maybe the 21st century message is that, with the stark exception of Cruella’s tresses, nothing is black and white.
Cruella opens tomorrow in cinemas across the UK.