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6 Thoughts on ‘Cruella,’ Starting With: It May Be the Best Movie of the Year So Far (Column)

A few weeks ago, there was every reason to be skeptical about “Cruella.” The creative track record for live-action remakes of Disney animated films was middling to dismal (the only one of the recent wave I thought worked was “The Lion King,” and most critics would say I’m dead wrong on that one). And this wasn’t even a remake of the winsome 1961 cartoon “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (we got that top-heavy mediocrity in 1996, presaging Disney’s recent strip-mining of its own past). The new film was to be an idiosyncratic spin-off origin story, clocking in at two hours and 14 minutes. But as audiences have been discovering, “Cruella” isn’t just better than you might have expected. It’s a mordantly witty and rousing delight: the definition of how to make an IP franchise movie with a touch of soul, a kiddie movie that adults can revel in, and — most astonishingly — a Disney movie that’s darkly insolent enough to tickle your punk funny bone. As the mainstream movie world returns to life, here are six thoughts on the minor miracle of “Cruella.”

1. It may be the best movie of the year so far. That sounds like a provocation or maybe hype, but I’ll throw down the gauntlet: Name a better one. (I’m counting “The Father,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and other awards contenders that “opened” this year as 2020 films.) “Cruella,” directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”) from a script by Dana Fox and Tony McNamara, is a high-kitsch rock-opera psychodrama staged with seductive style and a vicious kind of glee. It tells the story of Estella, an ambitious young British nobody played by the incomparable Emma Stone, who gets her freak on by metamorphosing into Cruella, a radically mod ’70s London fashion designer with schizoid hair and a defiant loose screw.

The thrill of the odyssey is how twisty and emotionally vibrant it is. Estella is a Dickensian urchin who maneuvers her way to the epicenter of chic, attaching herself to the Baroness (Emma Thompson), a high dictator of couture who becomes her mentor and rival. But what fuels the journey at every turn is the tooth-and-claw imperative of survival. Estella, abandoned by the world as a girl, teams up with a pair of petty thieves, played by the delectably clueless Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (who are like a lowlife yob Laurel and Hardy), but she remains a ruthless lone wolf. The more she learns of her past, the more the movie becomes not just a supervillain origin story but an outrageously committed journey of self-invention. It’s ruthlessly cheeky, it’s staged with an ingenuity that never stops surprising you, and it’s a lot more touching than you bargained for.

2. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson create a master class in mainstream acting. You expect these two to be good. What you don’t expect is how blithely they toss away the playbook that told them they’re acting in a Disney comedy. Stone floored me with how many shadings she brings to the gifted, benighted Estella. Staring out at the world under a red wig and owlish glasses, she’s the eager innocent who gets her foot in the door of the Liberty of London department store, only to learn that her job there is to scrub floors. She’s the cajoling, apple-polishing ladder-climber whose charm doesn’t work on the boss, and she’s the dissolute Vivienne Westwood upstart who creates a new couture out of — literally — ripping up the old one. Then she learns the secret of how she was abandoned as a child, and the revelation spins her over to the dark side, a transformation Stone makes from the scorched earth up. At the Baroness’s grand ball, when she appears for the first time as Cruella (in a blood-red dress and costume mask), she starts hitting people with her cane, and the way Stone does it, it’s no joke; she has made the film’s heroine a cathartic vandal. (But with that sweet lost girl still inside.) Late in the movie, she has an extended monologue shot at dawn, done in a single unbroken take, and it’s stunning to see the two sides of her come together.

And then there’s Emma Thompson. How to describe what she does in this movie? Think of the most sharply pointed, pinpoint scathing Thompson performance you could imagine (say, the acerbic talk-show host in “Late Night”), and kick it up about a dozen notches of misanthropic devilry. Thompson plays the Baroness as a delirious sociopath who controls every moment in every room she’s in, stealing micro power naps under cucumber slices, her voice of doom flowing over the peons in her midst, so cutting in the exaltation of her genius that she turns every conversation into a deadly duel. Thompson makes the Baroness a true monster but a brilliant one, always a step ahead and a step above. Condescension is the heady air she breathes. The sheer style of the performance is mesmerizing, but Thompson keeps tweaking us by upping the ante. She does the impossible by making narcissism shocking again.

3. The soundtrack is to die for, as if Scorsese were making a Disney movie. The rock chestnuts that play throughout “Cruella” lend it not just a period flavor but a richly atmospheric sensuality, starting with how the jauntiness of Supertramp’s “Bloody Well Right” is used to undergird the storybook introduction of Estella as a child born with two-tone hair. From there it’s on to the romanticism of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” as she starts her job at the department store, the weary ardor of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” the morning she goes to work for the Baroness, ELO’s “Livin’ Thing” heralding the ecstatic eruption of anarchy at the ball, and then, at last, the punk epiphany of Cruella doing a strut from hell to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as her stardom reaches its zenith — the most impish revenge-of-the-underground moment imaginable, tapping into the song’s masochistic defiance but with a gleeful nod to where Cruella and dogs fit into the grand power structure. Beyond that, Nicholas Britell’s remarkable score merges with the film’s jukebox sensibility, most spectacularly in the nervously beautiful piano motif that plays when the Baroness is looking over the collection she’s about to cannibalize from the people who work for her.

4. The film confirms that Craig Gillespie is a director for our time. He made “I, Tonya” (2017) into an outrageous beyond-the-tabloid biopic, telling Tonya Harding’s story in a way that was rich, deep and acerbic but never supercilious. “Cruella” is his first film since, and he spins it on an axis of camp while somehow keeping the whole thing weirdly sincere. It’s a caper movie with something at stake, and with a touch of ’70s Kings Road sensibility in the character of Artie (John McCrea), the glam boutique owner who’s up for anything but boredom, with the attempt to steal a necklace at the ball staged as an “Ocean’s” set piece gone madly wrong. Gillespie stages it all with a burnished elegance, but what marks him as a filmmaker for our era is that he was able to go right into the heart of the Disney corporate empire and make the movie he wanted to make.

5. Does the industry want a future in which a movie as good as this one is dumped onto Disney Plus? When “Cruella” opened in theaters over the Memorial Day weekend to a solid but hardly stellar four-day gross of $26 million, the conventional wisdom held that by making the film simultaneously available on Disney Plus, the studio had left money on the table. Maybe as much as $10 or $15 million. The suits would likely reply that they made up for it by charging Disney Plus subscribers 30 bucks to see the film on opening weekend. But don’t they get it? A movie in theaters, especially when it’s a hit, creates something you can’t just buy: visibility. Event status. “Cruella” is a terrific enough movie to be an event, and by offering it to home viewers the studio partly dissipated that energy. We’re still coming out of the pandemic, of course, but going forward the question raised by “Cruella” is: Why water down your release? What is the studio gaining? They’re trying to make Disney Plus more special, but to do that they’re making the goose less golden.

6. Is “Cruella” an Oscar film? Of course not. But it should be. In 2018, during that mercifully brief moment when the idea of a “popular” best picture category was floated and shot down, it was tempting to mock the Academy for desperately trying to wedge in the popcorn movies the Oscars were increasingly leaving out. But as bad as the idea was, the real sin was that “quality cinema” and “hit movies” were now being thought of as two entirely separate countries — and it wasn’t just the Academy that was guilty of that thinking. So was the whole Oscar-industrial complex: critics, awards prognosticators, the media karma that now anoints certain movies as “Oscar movies” before they’ve even come out, while the commercial films that might actually have a chance to draw viewers back to the Academy Awards languish in the déclassé pile. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether “Cruella” is a better film than “Promising Young Woman” (though they have more overlap than you’d think). But when I look at performances like the ones the two Emmas give here, my gut says: On what planet is this not as Oscar movie? On a planet of compulsive aesthetic virtue where it’s become unhip to laud a pleasure as unabashedly mainstream as this one.

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