Watching Emma Stone and Emma Thompson clash provides sufficient reason to see Cruella, a lively, surprisingly mordant story about how the famed Disney villainess Cruella De Vil became such a narcissistic queen.
Set in London during the 1970s, Cruella may be one franchise-based Disney movie that leans decidedly toward adult appreciation with its sharply drawn characters, lavish production design, and costumes that have been created with irresistible flair.
Normally, costumes shouldn't trump the actors but, in the case of Cruella, they assume the status of a character. You might even say that the movie is about two women and the clothes they wear.
Designer Jenny Beavan does a terrific job creating the movie's fashions, which are shown at parties, balls, and in the daily flow of the Baroness's life. Inventive and almost plausible, the costumes become testimonials to sartorial wit and imagination.
Director Craig Gillespie (I Tanya) fuses coming-of-age tropes with a story that evokes memories of The Devil Wears Prada, meaning that the movie has a kind of insiders kick you won't find in the 1961 animated original, 101 Dalmations.
In this case, the movie's giant-sized supply of narcissism resides in the ostentatiously attired person of The Baroness (Thompson). An imperious fashionista, The Baroness's iron-fisted rule over haute couture remains unchallenged, even as punk culture and thrift-store chic begin their ascendance.
Looking as if her face has been cast in bronze and sporting a bee-hive-sized mound of hair, Thompson creates a character of sharp edges, venomous bite, and casually expressed sadism. Let's just say that she takes the idea of being dressed to kill a little too literally.
Egotism aside, the Baroness has an eye for original talent, especially if she can exploit it. She's quick to spot the latent genius in Stone's Estella, the young woman who -- as the story unfolds -- morphs into Cruella.
Early on, Estella can be found working in a department store where she scrubs floors. During a drunken evening locked in the store, she creates a window display with enough originality to impress the Baroness. Estella's rise to stardom begins.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Cruella's plot kicks off with a young Estrella defying school rules. After the death of her mother, the newly orphaned Estella finds a London-based support system built around two larcenous characters, Joel Fry's Jasper and Paul Walter Hauser's Horace. This comic duo eventually serves to tweak Estella's diminishing conscience.
Once Estella becomes an employee at the Baroness's fashion house, we know that she'll eventually eclipse her mentor. Born with two-tone black and white hair, Estella dons a wig until her metaphorically divided mop-top emerges and she fully transforms into Cruella.
Stone handles the transformation well as Estella happily learns to focus her more vindictive impulses.
This shift and a predictable plot reveal trigger the melodramatic revenge saga that dominates the movie's final act, which suffers from a bit of bloat. But kudos to Disney for not forcing Gillespie and a strong cast into Disney straitjackets.
Among other things, Cruella dedicates itself to the notion that there's something both ridiculous and amusing about clothing that eschews function in favor of ornamental arrogance.
I'm not saying that Cruella trashes Disney. The movie acknowledges its Disney past but mostly succeeds in taking it to entertaining new levels.