Cruella ★★★½

Disney seems to be applying the superhero formula to all their non-superhero brands. We’ve seen it in the Mulan remake, in Raya, and now in Cruella. This is the story of how Estella, a glasses-wearing, not quite mild-mannered personal assistant of sorts who aspires to be a fashion designer, became Cruella, the heartless villain we know and love to hate. Before the transformation happens, Cruella is Estella’s alter ego and we are taken through the motions of how she constructs her secret identity and uses it to cause trouble for her employer-turned-nemesis, the Baroness. Loyal employee by day, a pain by night, that sort of thing.

Cruella hits all the conventional beats of a prequel, down to cheeky references to the film it spun off from and complementary origin stories to virtually every aspect it references. But it knows how to have just enough fun with it. Its central rivalry is dressed in an eye-catching fashion show, set to the loudest music and features two performances that are constantly trying to outdo each other in wickedness, Emma Stone and Emma Thompson owning their roles as Cruella and the Baroness. Before you know it, you’re caught up in its twists and find yourself gasping with the rest of the characters when the two fashionistas go toe-to-toe.

That makes Cruella only a little more inspired than most of Disney’s live-action remakes and spin-offs that have been populating screens in recent years. It’s almost comparable to Christopher Robin in the way it builds upon an existing property with a new story, but whereas Christopher Robin went all the way in its heart tugging and exploration of adulthood, Cruella stops in its tracks with its madness. Tone and subject matter differ, so it’s understandable; the real ruthless Cruella wouldn’t be appropriate to headline a tent-pole Disney release. Nevertheless, Cruella is the best it can be within its constraints and unpredictable enough to be enjoyable.

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