By John H. Foote
(***) In limited theatres/ Streaming on Disney
What is the “it” that some actors possess? That “sprinkled with stardust quality” that makes a movie star out of a normal human being, but also a genuine, transformative actor. Whatever the “it” is, Emma Stone has it. One legendary film critic called it the “bite you on the nose talent”. Again, the lovely Ms. Stone is all but bursting with it. Three times an Academy Award nominee, winning as Best Actress for her lovely work In La La Land (2016), she received nominations for Supporting Actress in both Bird Man (2015) and The Favourite (2018), deserving to win for the latter. With zany, mischievous eyes, a dazzling smile and a wiry, dynamic body, Stone has an electrifying presence the moment she appears on screen. She must glow into the camera!
Remember the film Street Smart (1987) the tiny, independent film with Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman? It was a nothing little film until Freeman appeared as a street-wise, vicious pimp, grabbing the audiences’ attention. Freeman, at the ripe age of 52, earned an Academy Award nomination with this film, winning awards from all the major critics groups. He had arrived. He was terrifying, holding a pair of scissors to the eye of a disobedient hooker and inviting her to choose which eye she was about to lose. Talk about the force of a single performance elevating a weak screenplay.
Both Stone and the great Emma Thompson perform that same act of charity to screenwriters, their work towering above the script and making the film so much better than it deserves to be.
In the dark, surprising new Disney film Cruella, Stone assumes the role of the Dalmatian-skinning Cruella, and as Glenn Close did in 1996, makes the role utterly her own with a wildly entertaining performance in which we see the character evolve, and Stone obviously having a blast doing it. In fact, and I mean no disrespect, Stone makes us forget Close’s version. Her performance explodes off the screen like gasoline introduced to a lit match. Sensational does not even come close to describing Stone in the part. She adapts to the tone of the film, which is a rollicking good time, and makes the role entirely her own.
Using the format from Maleficent (2016), a feature film about the origins of one of their iconic villains, this is actually both remake and original story. The live action film 101 Dalmatians (1996) was among the first Disney films to remake their animated works into live action. Don’t get me started on the greed of the Walt Disney Company. When they purchased Lucasfilm and the Star Wars stories, it was a case of greed meeting greedier. There was no doubt more Star Wars were forthcoming and will continue to be made. High time to stop folks. Recently they purchased and absorbed 21st Century Fox, so let’s see what they do to that once great studio and their library of film classics. I suspect more remakes of 21st Century films will be coming. Truthfully, discussing Disney and their creative practices in making films makes me livid because they are not about the art anymore like they once were. That, however, is a conversation for another day.
But all that aside, Cruella is among their finest live action films in a very long time. Beautifully designed, the costuming is Oscar worthy, but the film succeeds as well as it does because of Stone and, in a key supporting role, the extraordinary Emma Thompson, who has been relatively absent from the big screen after exploding into the 90s.
After the death of her mother (a key Disney element), the paint-by-numbers screenplay (which took five writers to cobble together) shows us Estella, as Cruella is known in her younger years, growing up as an orphan with her two friends, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), a couple of thieves who help her make her way in the world. Estella loves fashion and wants nothing more than to be an established fashion designer. She is certainly colourful to look at with the black/white designs she has going on and that rock star hair. As Estella emerges in the fashion world, so does Cruella – her alter ego. She is watched carefully by the treacherous Baroness (Thompson) who Cruella holds responsible for the death of her mother, chased down and knocked off a cliff by an overly aggressive Dalmatian, leading of course to her hatred of the breed. Cruella believes the Baroness ordered her mother’s death and as she climbs the fashion ladder, she has plans of her own for retribution.
The film makes Cruella a sympathetic character by showing the audience everything that went wrong in her young life, and all the obstacles she has had to overcome to get where she is in the fashion world. As she rises in that den of vipers, she does whatever she has to do to reach the top, including overcoming the Baroness, an absolute snake. Watching the two actresses chew the scenery as they take on each other is fun because two formidable actresses at war can be downright exciting. Each goes wildly over the top, and this is a film where going over the top is both necessary and appropriate. Jack Nicholson did this sort of thing for Tim Burton in Batman (1989) and gave that film an astounding boost of energy. Jim Carrey did the same in Batman Forever (1996), under-appreciated as the Riddler, but the film failed for other reasons not related to Carrey.
Will young kids enjoy the film? Not the wee ones. Frankly, it is not for them. In fact the film seems directed at adults, a rarity for Disney. I also think a degree of familiarity is necessary to appreciate the picture. There are two points of reference for understanding the film: the first animated movie 101 Dalmatians (1961) and the live action remake with Glenn Close in 1996. In fairness, the movie does introduce an entirely new chapter in the Cruella story, which might be enough to pull the kids in. Stone is so good, she alone could be the hook to getting audiences in the theatres.
Emma Stone’s essence spells trouble and we know she is going to get into it very soon. She moves with such deliberate motion, forward, always forward, and with such unbridled confidence! She is going to get the Baroness, and she is going to do it her way. This won’t be an easy task: the Baroness seems to be born of the Antichrist, a woman made of evil and steel. Emma Thompson is such a wonderful actress. I could watch her be nasty for two hours every day for the rest of my life. Someone give her Lady MacBeth, or script a female Satan. Just hire this gifted actress to play badass, evil women. Thompson is brilliant as the Baroness, as vile a human being as one could be. Think of Streep’s Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada (2006) dipped in toxic acid and arriving from the fires of hell, landing on earth in the fashion world. Thompson owns the film up until the grand ball where Estella becomes Cruella, where Stone takes over the film with her own spectacular performance. The balance of the film flies by as their war escalates, with perfect poisonous asides until only one is left standing.
Could an actress earn an Oscar nomination for a film like this? Stone could, and should, and Thompson could and should land in the supporting category. However, parents, believe it or not, will help decide that. Being a Disney film, we expect something child friendly which this is clearly NOT. The war between the two women is vicious, with each doing vile things to defeat the other. It might not be something parents are comfortable with their children seeing. I know I would not have taken my little girls until they were old enough to figure the film out for themselves. (They learned about the potential cruelty of evil girls in public school instead!)
Stone’s greatest triumph in this film is that she somehow makes us care for her character, that we feel for Cruella! But should that come as a surprise knowing the director’s (Craig Gillespie) previous film, I, Tonya (2017) offered up a vulnerable Tonya Harding in a blazing performance from Margot Robbie? He seems to understand abused, mistreated women in his films, offering their story in a way that encourages us to forgive their behaviour later in life. Gillespie plunged the audience back into time, populating his soundtrack with songs from the late 60s and 70s. Like Hal Ashby did with Coming Home (1978) he leverages songs to take you back in time, addressing all five senses. His use of colour in the production design is perfect, but it is the colours of Stone as Cruella where he truly shines, allowing his artists to use their imaginations and have a ball. She explodes into the Grand Ball, making an entrance no one will ever forget, allowing us to whisper in awe, “Cruella is born.”
I love actors, I love watching them evolve with each performance, daring to challenge the audience’s perception of them and seeing them create authentic, realistic characters. It is not an easy thing to do in a business that wants the same from you in each film. But acting is all about art, and it is an art borne of the truth. Both Stone and Thompson bring great truth to each character. I believed both of them in every second of screen time and loved them equally for it.
Disney actually took a risk. Must be desperate times at the revered (not by me) House of Mouse.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.