Well, you know, everything is relative. From the orthodox point of view, Disney’s collection of (mostly female — what’s up with that?) villains are just straight-up irredeemably evil. Then Maleficent came along in 2014 and showed that with a bit of tweaking and a shift of consciousness, the iconic baddie from Sleeping Beauty (1959) could be a heroine, albeit a haughty and imperious one. That flick begat a sequel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), that was less commercially successful, but Disney seems convinced that the theory is sound, and so here comes a prequel reinvention of Cruella de Vil, the monstrous would-be puppy murderer of 101 Dalmatians (1961). One must appreciate the confidence.
Throwing chronological sense to the wind (but to good effect), Cruella sets its scene in the fashion demimonde of 1970s London, just on the cusp of the punk explosion. There, we follow the exploits of young Estella (Emma Stone, with Tipper Seifert-Cleveland playing the younger version in the opening scenes), an orphan with a flair for fashion who wants to be a designer. Instead, she’s a century-on Dickensian ragamuffin, having teamed up with vagabond thieves Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) following the death of her mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham).
Things start looking up when the trio manage to scam her an entry-level position at the prestigious fashion house run by the imperious Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), where Estella’s raw talent and moxie see her climbing the ladder quite quickly, only being stymied by the fact that the Baroness is an amoral, vindictive bitch who flagrantly steals the work of her underlings to pass off as her own (if you’ve ever been even remotely involved in the fashion industry, you know this is essentially a documentary).
Luckily — or unluckily, depending on your read of the situation — Estella has a dark side. Her mother called her mean streak “Cruella” for reasons that should be obvious. It’s as Cruella that our … heroine might not be the right word, so let’s go with protagonist … makes her mark as a kind of punk rock guerrilla fashionista, gatecrashing galas and staging her own anarchic happenings, setting her on a collision course with von Hellman.