'Cruella' Is Absolutely Nothing Like 'Joker'

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland

BY Alex HudsonPublished May 26, 2021

After Cruella's trailer dropped back in February, it was endlessly compared to Joker — another bad-guy origin story that seemingly sympathized with its subject. Audiences were left asking: do we really need to humanize a villain whose signature move is skinning dogs and turning them into coats?

Beyond the very superficial similarity, however, Cruella is absolutely nothing like Joker. This is pure Disney razzle-dazzle, every bit as fanciful as the story its based on. There's no grit and very little to relate to — just a fanciful fable about a merry group of street urchins, one of whom has a prodigious talent for high fashion.

Estella (played as a child by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) is a precocious kid with stark black-and-white hair and a bit of a mean streak, earning her the nickname "Cruella." She decorates her school blazer with graffiti and safety pins, even though this early part of the film seems to be set in the '50s or '60s and predates punk by at least a decade. After her mom is killed by three Dalmatians (foreshadowing!), Estella makes her way to London, where she meets two fellow orphans and becomes a pickpocket.

Flash forward a decade or so and Estella has grown into Emma Stone. She's still living with her thieving companions, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), in an impossibly comfortable squat with electricity and running water. She makes a sudden breakthrough in the fashion world after she creates an edgy department store window display that catches the eye of designer Baroness (Emma Thompson).

If Cruella merits comparison to any other film, it's not Joker but The Devil Wears Prada — another film where a talented youngster is pinned under the stiletto a domineering boss in the fashion world. Thompson is wonderfully imperious in the Meryl Streep role, effectively toeing the line between charismatic genius and self-absorbed asshole. But the two-and-a-quarter-hour film drags a bit in its setup, since really we're all here for one reason: to watch Estella transform into Cruella. Director Craig Gillespie presents the story in chronological order, which puts a little too much much emphasis on the exposition of the first half. Once Cruella finally emerges, Stone totally nails it with unhinged, over-the-top swagger.

Cruella is all about aesthetics, from the dazzling costuming of the main character to the glitzy scenes of the London fashion world. It's a treat to look at, with opulent sets and a striking black, white and red colour palette. The big-budget soundtrack situates the film in the '70s — although the songs actually stretch from the '60s (Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" and Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'") to the '80s (The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go"), making it impossible to figure out exactly when this is supposed to be set.

The whole point of baddie origin stories is to humanize a villainous character, forcing audiences to relate to them and grapple with the dark aspects in our own personalities. But Cruella is so campy and stylized that it never makes its antihero feel like a real person.

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