The Met Gala should be so lucky.
In a spectacular (though sadly fictional) red carpet moment that easily rivals Lady Gaga’s 2019 Met Gala striptease , a sanitation truck arrives, ready to offload its trash. But then Emma Stone as Cruella de Vil somehow emerges from the detritus, gathering a 40-foot-train around her and looking like a demented Cinderella arriving at the ball — if her fairy godmother were a hybrid of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
Her nemesis, Emma Thompson as the icy Baroness von Wintour, we mean von Hellman, glares. And there we have the three main elements that make Disney’s “Cruella” a guilty pleasure, at least for the eyes: Emma S, Emma T, and fashion. Killer fashion.
Let’s get out of the way what’s sure to be the major complaint about this film, an origin story for the dog-hunting Disney villainess introduced in the 1961 animated classic “One Hundred and One Dalmatians”: It’s long. No really. It’s loooong. At 134 minutes, it definitely could benefit from a pair of shears.
But, rather like that 40-foot-train garbage dress — kudos to costume designer Jenny Beavan, the film's true heroine — why cut when you have Emma Stone in you, giving her all? That was probably the thinking from director Craig Gillespie. It does make some sense. Stone is always compelling, and with an ace nemesis in Thompson, she’s having a blast.
Plus, with all those clothes, and a story set in the colorful punk revolution of 1970s London (with soundtrack to match), you need more movie. Thompson wears more than 30 looks, each more “haute” (read haughty) than the next, and Stone around 50. Still, when a movie brazenly celebrates style over substance, part of style is arguably knowing when to stop.
Let’s also get the obvious puns out of the way: “The De Vil Wears Prada.” “The Devil Wears Disney.” Etc. Yes, there's more than a passing reference to that very durable 2006 film, which also pitted an aspiring young woman (Anne Hathaway) against a powerful fashion-world ice queen (Meryl Streep) modeled on Wintour. Then again, Hathaway’s Andy had nothing against puppies, as far as we know.
So back to Cruella. You’ll remember she was brought to life (and live action) by Glenn Close in the 1996 and 2000 movies. This film begins at birth. How did she become the frightening figure who would scheme to kill puppies to make a coat? “If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will,” went the song in 1961.
The screenplay does not entirely succeed in answering this question. The conundrum: Central to Stone’s appeal is that we love her, always. Whatever trouble she gets in, we want her to succeed. And so, like her trusty band of friends here — Jasper and Horace and Anita Darling — we remain on her side throughout. But really, is there a way one can love someone who will grow up to plot to skin puppies? Best to gloss over that, which the film sorta does.
We learn that Estella — her birth name — struggled as a child to tame her nasty side. Her sweet mother teasingly reminds her: “Your name is Estella, not CRUEL-la.”
At her small-town school, the young girl with a natural two-toned shock of black and white hair (an appealing Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) and passion for fashion gets into trouble, and Mum decides to move them to London. But tragedy strikes, and soon Estella is an orphan.
Luckily, she meets up with a pair of petty thieves, Horace and Jasper, who take pity and allow her to join the trade. “You don’t got too many options,” they advise her.
Ten years go by. Estella (now Stone), an expert thief, gets her big break: a job cleaning floors at Liberty in London (arranged by Jasper and Horace, now played by Joel Fry and and an amusing Paul Walter Hauser; Kirby Howell-Baptiste has too few scenes as Anita.) Hey, it’s an honest wage. One night, drunk and frustrated, she redesigns a store window display. The baroness (Thompson), the world’s top designer, sees the rebellious window and immediately hires Estella.
As an employer, the baroness is cruel and capricious (not a comfortable source of comedy these days, but whatever). Still, she recognizes Estella’s talent. Meanwhile, Estella discovers something disturbing about the baroness that connects to her own past. And thus the vicious showdown begins. It’s her or me, the baroness says: “I choose me.”
And the weapon is fashion. And so, second only to that garbage-truck dress, we have another fabulous red-carpet moment with Stone in a voluminous red skirt (Beavan says she used more than 5,000 petals of fabric to keep it light), a bejeweled military jacket and Doc Martens, stomping on top of the baroness’s car, swooshing her skirt around and literally swallowing the vehicle.
The Met Gala is returning this fall, folks. The red carpet awaits. Lady Gaga, are you listening?
“Cruella,” a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some violence and thematic elements. “ Running time: 134 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.